Squash Player's Richard Eaton talks to Marwan ElShorbagy about how he has emerged from the shadow of brother Mohamed to be a force in his own right on the PSA World Tour
Marwan ElShorbagy has found his own route. If that sounds like an outdated description of a 24-year-old who has already reached World No.5 and has been playing the best squash of his life, it should be remembered that his sat nav has not entirely been in his own possession.
Marwan knew how he should attempt to move forward quite a long time ago. “I don’t have to live my brother’s story; I can have my own story. I have to be the best version of myself,” he says.
The trouble is, some people wouldn’t let him, especially after Mohamed, his older brother, spent many months as World No.1. They went to surprising lengths to impose tiresome comparisons.
You will never be as good as your brother, Marwan was sometimes told. Even after he matched some of Mohamed’s achievements by twice becoming world junior champion and going on to win half a dozen PSA Tour titles, adverse comparisons continued, which inflicted constant, morale-draining pressure.
It sometimes seemed to him that his steady improvements warranted little consider- ation. Incredibly, when Marwan beat Mohamed for the first time, in Chicago in February, there were those who refused to accept the result was meaningful. A few even claimed it was fixed.
“It was really hard,” Marwan said.
“The timing of the win knocked my brother off the world no.1 spot, which made me feel like I was taking away something from him, when he has given me so much. How I cried – and how he was so happy for me.”
An emotional embrace between the ElShorbagy brothers, Marwan (left) and Mohamed (right)
This aftermath was so painful and confusing that the sceptical responses seemed absurd. Thankfully, there were important, mind- changing compensations.
After watching the video of Mohamed consoling him on court and observing how happy his brother had been for him, Marwan felt some relief. Even better, those deep-seated, post-match moments were communicated to hundreds of thousands of people via social media.
“We are two brothers, close to each other, and people saw that,” Marwan says.
“A lot of other brothers spoke about it to each other and it meant a lot to see this going viral. I think it meant a lot to other people as well.
“It changed the way people looked at things. It can be good when you change people and change how people think. It helped me.”
Although Marwan soon repeated his win over Mohamed – at El Gouna in April, in the process qualifying for the World Series Finals in Dubai – it seems that future successes are unlikely to halt the irksome comparisons entirely. But he can hope that the increasing quality of his results may reduce them and his sensible perspectives shield him from the worst frustration.
Those who have seen the pace and accuracy of Marwan’s game may have noticed his attention to detail, and should know he is a threat to any leading player in any tournament.
Marwan ElShorbagy in action during June's PSA Dubai World Series Finals
None of this would ever have happened had he given in to feelings of homesickness and loss when he first moved from Alexandria to Millfield School in Somerset in his early teens.
“I told my mum I didn’t want to move to England, because I was so close to my friends. She didn’t force me, but she did push me. It was really hard,” he admits.
“That first week was the toughest week of my life.
I had no friends and knew no-one, and wanted to go back every single day, I remember.”
But how quickly that all changed.
“Ian Thomas and Jonah Barrington helped me from the start. I began to get a good education and soon it made me a responsible guy,” Marwan said.
Within a few years he was doing a degree in business studies at the University of the West of England, enjoying a very companionable house-share with several other squash players in Bristol and improving his on-court movement with coach Hadrian Stiff.
There were other benefits as well.
“I can do a lot of stuff here which is not allowed in Egypt,” he says.
“It’s more comfortable and more open. The routine is easier. It’s more organised. It’s more relaxed, especially at the end of the season.
Marwan ElShorbagy after beating Ali Farag in the Windy City Open semi-finals
“There (in Egypt) it’s hectic. It’s the chemistry of the way people treat each other. People on the street don’t have smiling faces. There are a lot of poor people in Egypt. It’s just hard. I always feel the pressure there and feel like coming back to Bristol.”
Consequently, his squash has improved steadily and he feels better in himself. We are “like a family”, Marwan says of his house- mates.
Despite this, it would be wise to note Marwan’s words about what the English don’t do so well, as they are falling seriously behind the Egyptians in the development of talent. “It’s a problem here,” he agreed.
The difference, he suggests, is in motivation.
“Egypt produce so many good juniors because they have coaches and parents pushing them. It makes them hungry. It makes them work for something they never dreamed of,” he says.
Nevertheless, it is in England where he feels most appreciated.
“I remember Ian Thomas asked me to do some teaching at Millfield School a couple of years ago, just after I’d reached the top 10,” he recalls.
“We thought of what to talk about. And I realised I’d been through so much in my life and I was only 22 years old.”
These reflective inclinations brought to mind his mother, Basma, who occasionally suggested that there was a lot going on with Marwan that people couldn’t see. While the elder brother tends to speak his mind, straight and simple, Marwan’s thoughts may be less easy to guess.
A window into this insight became apparent as Marwan pondered which improvements might help him take the last few ultra- difficult steps to the very top.
“One of my friends told me that I put pressure on myself,” he commented.
“‘You are in the top 10,’ he told me, ‘and even if you stop now, you have done something.’”
It has been hard for him to move beyond a recognition that last season was better than the one before, but he has become more positive about himself.
“Getting to number five is my highest ever,” he reminds himself. “I beat my brother for the first time, I beat Nick Matthew for the first time and now I have beaten everyone in the top 10.”
Marwan celebrated his win over Nick Matthew on day one of the World Series Finals
But his awareness that there remain things to develop is what exercises him most.
“My mentality was always to try to be a better
player than yesterday,” he emphasises.
“But it is starting to become more than that. I want to be number one.
“It won’t happen this season. But I need to tell myself I can win World Championships and become World No.1. My mentality needs to change.
“If I can make these changes, then on a bad day I can win tournaments. I have seen my brother nowhere near his best, but still winning tournaments. That’s what makes the difference
[between others] and a real champion.”
What ingredients in Marwan’s game most enable him to succeed? His answer, ironically, is that a lot of people wonder how he wins matches.
“I may be the most underestimated player in the top 10,” he says wryly.
Not wishing to offer too many insights to potential rivals, he uses other players to illustrate his game. One of them is Mathieu Castagnet, France’s former World No.6.
“How hard it is to play him!” Marwan says.
“From the outside, you may have no idea why he wins matches. But go on court and he will show you.”
Marwan also recalls Peter Barker, an Englishman who made the world top five “without a great game”, Marwan says.
“As soon as I was on court with him, it was pace and accuracy, pressure all the time.
“That was good enough and it’s good enough for me. Watching from the outside, people often don’t see. That is what I have learnt about this game.”
Marwan also knows more about the wider world. “Living in England has changed how I think about life and made me realise it isn’t all about squash all the time,” he reflects, though the paradox is that this may well be making him a better player.
“Looking back at it now, my mum…” he says, pausing briefly before reaching his emotional conclusion, “she knew what was right and what was wrong.”