The Egyptian Way: How to use your body’s energy tank.
Squash is a phenomenal sport. For a sport played in a relatively small space, there are countless ways to approach the same task – the task of winning a match. The variation of styles and tactics is huge.
I was having a conversation with a good friend a few days ago about how as players, we can choose how to apply our fitness. A persons fitness isn’t predetermined to fit into one of these two categories: stamina or speed/aggression.
If we assume all professional squash players hold the same amount of expendable energy in their body, then why do Egyptian players in particular appear to be more dynamic? Are they naturally born to be stronger? It seems like they have more explosivity in the way they move and apply their trade in every rally.
They’re not genetically any different. They’re not super-human. This isn’t down to leg strength, or greater leg speed – it’s a choice. A personal choice of how they want to play in terms of tactics and how to use their physical energy.
‘Physical choices’ explained.
Squash rallies are full of moments in which we have a decision to make – “Do I either…” One; “Make myself work harder than I have to by trying to reach the ball as early as I can, knowing it will pressurize my opponent more, or…” Two; “Do I take the physically easier option by letting the ball travel further before I hit it, allowing me more time?”
There are certain times where option one is the right thing to do, and there are times when the second option is the correct decision, but there are countless times throughout a match that either can be done, and neither one is necessarily the right or wrong decision. This is where Egyptians generally choose option one, expressing their willingness to make themselves work harder for that moment in order to apply pressure to their opponent.
It is a common misconception that the fitter athlete is the one who looks like they could rally all day long, and would be happy to play 100 shot rallies for every point, eventually playing out a match lasting 2 hours. Let me tell you it is far easier to play a 100 shot rally at a slow pace than it is to play a 15 shot rally at a fast pace. This is the case even if you are the one forcing the pace, not just the one who is being put under pressure and having to retrieve. To choose to apply pressure to your opponent in this way takes a strong mental desire and supreme fitness if you are to sustain it for the majority of a match. To play like this would mean a 45 minute match would be equally as tiring as a 90 minute match played at a slower pace.
I remember watching a fantastic match once in The British Championships. It was the semi-final between Peter Nicol who was No.1 in The World at the time and of course the No.1 seed for the event, and Mark Chaloner who was ranked 7 in the World. Chaloner won 3-0 in about 40 minutes but it was brutal. He played at such an outrageously fast pace that Peter Nicol could never settle at any point of the match. Chaloner said afterward that if Nicol could have won the last game he was completely finished as he wouldn’t have had any energy left! On the professional tour, Mark Chaloner was known as an exceptionally fit athlete, without-a-doubt one of the fittest – yet he was exhausted after 40 minutes!
Of course this was a shock result, and I’m sure Nicol was shocked too. Chaloner did exactly what he needed to do in order to beat Peter, and it took bold decision and a massive effort in order to play as fast as he did – but it worked. This style of victory was very rare for an Englishman.
This is what very few players are willing to do, because it’s hard and it hurts, but this is what a lot Egyptians choose to do. Players like Mohamed ElShorbagy, Tarek Momen, Mohamed Abouelghar, Fares Dessouky, Nour ElSherbini, Raneem El Welily, Nour El Tayeb and even the more controlled Ali Farag. I’ve watched Farag thrash James Willstrop a couple of times (which is no mean feat at all) where the pace he played at was amazing and simply too much for the skillful Englishman. He pushed himself forwards and forced himself to volley balls which would have been far easier to let go past him to the back, but he obviously felt he needed to stay in front of the big and controlled Willstrop in order to force the pace and win. He pushed himself out of his comfort zone knowing it would have a far greater impact on his opponent.
The players listed above certainly know when to push themselves to reach a ball quickly in order to pressurize their opponent, and they know when to chill out a bit. Ali Farag is a good example of this, as is Raneem in the women’s game. They are very good at injecting pace all of a sudden with the choices they make, and they can also reduce the pace or play a few shots at a comfortable pace in order to quickly recover, before an injection of pace again.
This injection of pace through movement is how these Egyptians have managed to change the modern game of squash. It’s not about playing amazing winning shots all the time, they sustain pressure on their opponent all the time with their movement and their choices, not choices of shot selection but choices of when to physically hurt themselves in the short term for the greater good in the long term. The result of reaching shots earlier than is often necessary is not just to take time away from your opponent, but it also gives more options. There are more shot options in the middle of the court than there are in the back corners. This is why Egyptians can play more angles and winning shots, because they force themselves into aggressive positions on the court with their movement.
If a player is going to win major squash events they need to win, 4, 5 or possibly 6 matches against extremely tough opposition. Surely as the days wear on it is beneficial to spend less accumulative time on court in order to recover for each match the next day? Yes I’ve said that a 40 minute match can be as tough as a 90 minute match. This is a true feeling during the match, as a match consisting of short and fast rallies gives you a feeling of breathlessness, like you’ve been ‘winded’. It tires out your lungs. Whereas a longer slower match consisting of long tactical rallies will eventually tire out your lungs, but it will also tire out your legs. Throughout a quicker but intense match with your legs will cover a much shorter distance as the movements involved have been short and explosive, mainly consisting of one or two strides/lunges from The T Area; whereas a longer, less-intense match will mean your legs have covered miles more distance, with most movements sending you all the way into the corners of the court. The ‘winded’ feeling in the lungs can recover quite quickly after the match, whereas the large distances covered takes much longer for the leg muscles to recover.
Certainly is sports like squash and tennis, we see ‘time spent on court’ stats when two players reach the latter stages of tournaments, and these can differ greatly depending on their individual styles of play. Gregory Gaultier (although not Egyptian) has had such a successful and long career (becoming the oldest ever PSA World no.1 at the age of 34) because of his playing style. In major events consisting of all the best players in the World, he would win the earlier rounds so quickly, so by the time Greg played his semi-final he had spent far less time on court than his opponent, guaranteed. This made him a tournament winning machine. If you cannot win quickly at least sometimes, it makes longevity difficult. I feel someone like Laura Massaro is finding this. It becomes difficult to continue to win long matches over and over again, time after time, year after year. Motivation has to wane after so many years. Laura is an absolutely awesome squash player, prime example of what hard work can achieve, a superb ambassador for the sport, Laura’s one of the all time greats, but she’s finding it harder and harder to win events like she used to. I’ve always liked it when Laura played aggressively and forced the momentum with volleys and slightly harder hitting, but her nature tends to be a more medium paced, tactical approach which has served her well over the years. This results in longer matches and often more vital point situations, becoming very mentally draining. Fatigue has to kick in after a few days of this. Squash has changed in the last few years with the domination of the Egyptians and other players much adapt too in order to compete at the highest level.
I’m not saying everybody should go on court and run around like a headless chicken by trying to volley every single shot. Squash must be measured and controlled. Most people though would consider “measured and controlled” to mean “slow”. This is not the case. It’s about picking your moments to push yourself harder than necessary, and picking your moments to inject pace into the rally. You can play a very fast paced rally, but without measure and control it will simply be reckless; the result being ‘loose’ squash which hands the initiative to your opponent. A fast paced rally in which you choose to inject pace in a controlled way and hit your target corners, means there’s an awareness of time, space and player positions, and a definite sense of what you’re trying to achieve with each shot, and each rally.
We all have choices to make every time we play a shot. Not just “what shot shall I play” but “when and where shall I play it from”. The big question is – Are you willing to hurt yourself a little in order to hurt your opponent more??