Most of us know that Ahmed Barada was a trailblazer and a huge factor in inspiring a whole nation to world domination. In 1996 (already the World Junior Champion) he reached the final as a wildcard entrant in the very first Al-Ahram event in front of the pyramids. He went a step further two years later when he won the event and reached no.2 in the world rankings.
He united a nation, became a household name, attracted the attentions of the then president Hosni Mubarak, and began the Egyptian squash domination we see now. Next came Amr Shabana, then Ramy Ashour then a whole host of other players. Raneem El Welily was just an 9 year old girl when she watched in awe as Barada won Al-Ahram. She remembers that day well. Because of Barada, half full squash clubs became full every day and every night – and most importantly, filled with juniors wanting to learn the sport. Since 2003 when Shabana won the first of his 4 world championship titles, we’ve all sat back and been amazed by wave after wave of Egyptian wizardry on the squash court.
However this blog is not a history lesson. I want to look at what has been happening over the last 15 years and is still happening. I know in the past squash domination has gone through 10/15/20 year cycles. We had Pakistan, Australia, England and now Egypt as the main driving force. Some people think this is just Egypt’s turn and it will change again in 5 years, as history suggests it will. I absolutely believe that this is different – Egyptian domination isn’t going anywhere. We can see this by their junior successes. We can already see Mostafa Asal (19) and Hania El Hammamy (20) are moving into place to dominate the top of the world rankings for the next decade – but there are other Egyptians of a similar age right behind them. At every British Junior Open, the finals are massively dominated by Egyptians at every age group, and this doesn’t look like changing, especially in the girls age groups. There are already dozens of top Egyptian juniors who will realistically see themselves as the next Mohamed El Shorbagy or Nour El Sherbini.
So – What is their key to success – and continued success?
Success breeds success. This is especially true when wannabe superstars have access to the current superstars. This is what happens in Egypt.
Squash in Egypt is bunched in about 10 main clubs in two cities; Cairo and Alexandria. For aspiring young players, proximity to greatness plays a huge factor. Have a look at this list of which city Egyptian players in the World top 20 train in:
CAIRO: Ali Farag, Tarek Momen, Karim Gawad, Mohamed Abouelghar, Mustafa Asal, Mazen Hesham, Omar Mosaad, Raneem El Welily, Nouran Gohar, Nour El Tayeb, Mania El Hammamy, Yathreb Adel, Nadine Shahin, Nada Abbas.
ALEXANDRIA: Mohamed and Marwan ElShorbagy (when they are not in England), Fares Dessouky, Zahed Salem, Nour El Sherbini, Salma Hany, Rowan Elaraby.
That’s 21 players, out of the top 40 male and female players in the world!
Imagine being a junior in one of these cities – most times you go to the squash club you’ll be guaranteed to see one or more of these players. You can watch them train, speak to them, and hopefully even play with them. You get to see how great players play, how they train, what they eat etc etc. How amazing is that??! As a junior you couldn’t not be inspired and want to emulate them. So purely because of the squash club geography of the country, this is a recipe for potentially never-ending success. Success begets success.
Egypt has so many juniors playing squash. The last national junior championships had 1200 entrants across all ages. Imagine that? So, just by playing the numbers game, Egypt will end up with some great players capable of becoming top professionals.
Egyptian juniors are encouraged to spend a lot of time on court. Improvement is made on the court, not in gyms. The massive majority of court time is used for matchplay. English players ‘practice’ more, Egyptian players ‘play’ more. They develop their own nuances – one size definitely does not fit all – which is the opposite of what our juniors in England are often taught.
They have 14 national-ranking junior tournaments each year. Players are allowed to play 9 tournaments in their age category, and 5 in the upper age brackets. The top two seeds of an age category are also allowed to play in the upper age bracket in the same event, for example, when Mustafa Asal was 16, he played in the U17 and U19 National Championships over the same weekend. This seems unique. I do not know of any other countries which would allow this.
So, because of the number of entrants and the fact some players can play in two age categories, junior tournaments in Egypt allow for more matches to be played by each individual, gaining valuable match experience. By encouraging their juniors to at least experiment with older age group event, players are also helped to become even better and even stronger if they so wish.
Since the days of Ahmed Barada and his relationship with the president (who was a keen squash fan anyway), squash is recognised by the government as the country’s second biggest sport behind football. Because of this status, squash and in-particular, junior squash does receive some government funding. Egyptian Squash itself has a lucrative long-term partnership with CIB (Commercial International Bank, CIB Egypt) which of course helps a lot. This all filters down and several clubs themselves even sponsor some of their top juniors.
A few years ago, former World No.14 Omar El Borolossy said there were more than 2000 players aged between 5-10 among his academy. “That’s enough to dominate squash for the next 20 years” he said. The only issue he can foresee is a lack of courts to meet this extraordinary demand, probably a nice problem to have – like when a premiership manager has a squad so great he doesn’t know who not to play in his starting 11 line-up.
There could be as many as 150 squash courts in Cairo alone. There are 12 clubs that have a minimum of 8 courts, and there’s a national complex with 6 courts where the national team often train together. This is a healthy number of courts for a relatively small area.
There is one other factor in play: Egypt has a deeply orthodox and patriarchal society, yet women squash players may compete in skirts and they are free from their hijabs on court. The sport has given women a new progressive identity. Squash offers an appealing escape.
All these reasons show how Egypt offers a perfect melting pot for squash success. Surely we can see that this period of domination will not just fade away like what happened with Pakistani and Australian squash, and to think this it will is simply hopeful and naive.
If England are going to have a strong presence in the World Top 10 male and female rankings ever again, we need to learn from Egypt’s success and emulate what we can. Squash will never be the second biggest sport in England, but we can find ways to increase junior participation; we can alter some tournament rules; England Squash can provide much more support to clubs wanting to host a junior event (instead of hindering the club by charging them a fee!); and I’m sure we can find a way to give juniors regular access to top professional players. It all gives us food for thought…..
by Andy Whipp