Squash Player's Richard Eaton reviews the changing relationship between Mohamed and Marwan ElShorbagy, who became the first brothers to contest a PSA World Championship final last year
Marwan threw away his racket, unable to look Mohamed in the eye. Tears welled up in the younger brother as he buried his face in his older brother’s neck. Powerful feelings needed a transcendental moment to dispel them and they received it. Had he not always said, Mohamed reminded Marwan, that “the day my brother beats me will be the proudest day of my life”? The words will make enduring memories.
This emotional earthquake which shook the ElShorbagys, after a Chicago final when Marwan beat Mohamed for the first time, offered an insight into dangerous forces which swirled around them again as they became the first brothers to contest a world squash final.
A damaging sequel was averted with help from their parents, who joined their sons on court in Manchester immediately after Mohamed’s win, but other difficult showdowns could lie ahead. The brothers’ relationship may need to adapt further. Danger still lurks.
Nothing quite like this has happened in squash before – even though the Martin brothers, Brett and Rodney, each world no.2 during the 1990s, had to compete against each other occasionally. Encounters between the Khan brothers, Azam and Hashim, in the 1950s were probably influenced by hierarchical attitudes.
Distracting comparisons with other sporting brothers may increase – the Murrays, Andy and Jamie, in tennis; the Waughs, Mark and Steve, in cricket; the Underwoods, Rory and Tony, in rugby; or even the Charltons, Bobby and Jack, in football.
However, there will always be significant differences between the ElShorbagys and these other fraternal legends. None of them had the potentially destructive emotions of competing directly against each other in a big final.
The Charltons faced each other in matches between Manchester United and Leeds United, where feelings were diffused by team relationships. The Murrays, the Waughs and the Underwoods usually competed on the same side. The ElShorbagys are already being hyperbolised as the most confrontational brethren since Cain and Abel.
Pictured above: Mohamed and Marwan with their parents after Mohamed's World Championship win over his brother
Who would have predicted it? Well, Marwan, apparently. “I had a feeling before the quarter-finals that my brother and I were going to meet in the final,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to think about it too much.”
Wishing these moments away may become harder if showdowns happen more often. Aged 27 and 24, the ElShorbagys should still improve, while the stakes may increase and the emotional risks become greater.
So far they have returned to supporting each other again within a couple of hours of their matches. But a need for new coping strategies is acknowledged.
No longer do the ElShorbagys share rooms at tournaments. “This is the first season my brother came up with the idea, which I found funny,” Marwan admits. “But it does make sense, because when we are playing each other, it’s an awkward feeling in the room. My brother is in the next bed and I have to play him next day – it’s not a good feeling.”
Remarkably, not till near the end of the Manchester week did they see each other, having communicated through messages after their matches. Even after their successful semi-finals they did not meet.
“That night what I and my brother went through, few would understand,” Marwan said. “I saw him, by luck, on the morning of the final, at the hotel reception. We gave each other a hug. It was quite a special moment.”
How could two vulnerable lads wrenched away from Alexandria, a legendary city of antiquity, have survived in distant, rural, provincial low-key Somerset? How did they endure homesickness and isolation while learning a new language and acquiring a very different education? How did they tolerate colder damper climes and evolve into Anglophiles? And how did they become two of the world’s finest players?
The answer has a mysterious beginning, with a chance meeting near the oldest of the seven wonders of the world, the Giza pyramids. There the 15-year-old Mohamed requested a practice session during the 2006 World Championships with Joey Barrington, who was unable to oblige, but responded by calling father Jonah back in Glastonbury.
The Great Pyramid of Giza
Ten days later Mohamed and mother Basma arrived at Castle Cary station to meet the legend. Apparently, the youngster proffered such a limp handshake that Jonah was immediately moved to give his first piece of advice: “When you shake hands with someone, you should show them you are strong.”
But they got on well. Mohamed attended Millfield School, where Barrington coached. A year later, Marwan joined them. Till then he had invested less in his squash than Mohamed and spoke no English. It had never been easy for Mohamed, but for Marwan the first fortnight was the toughest of his life, during which he understood nothing and spent hours in tears.
Both were, however, closely supported by Basma Hassan, the clever and determined mother who relocated to within 800 metres of Millfield and got the lads up at 7am for an hour’s fitness session each day before school. She also digested sufficient knowledge from observing Barrington and his colleague, Ian Thomas, to provide competent coaching herself.
“She will often help me during tournaments,” Mohamed says. “She understands us more than anyone else, she knows other players and she has watched other matches. It’s always better with her.”
It was better for both boys with both coaches as well. Their bonds became so strong that Marwan still sometimes stays with Ian and his family, saying it is like having another brother. Mohamed told spectators after the world final that Jonah was “a father”.
The surrogate pater says of Mohamed: “Regardless of how well he plays when he is a front runner, he’s incredibly dangerous when he has his back to the wall. It releases a force of nature which is difficult to handle.
“Many players are excellent front runners. There are very few who almost always find a way to respond, who will fight to the death, and that’s what he does. He had to realise there are critical phases of matches, which can come at any time, but most importantly at the end.”
Mohamed can also be impulsive and forthright, and unleash passionate opinions. Marwan is more likely to assess detail and invoke diplomacy, even when he disagrees. The brothers are very different. And so is their squash.
“Marwan is like a fledgling, still with so many areas he can maximise,” Thomas enthuses. “He can become slightly quicker. His body can be slightly stronger.
Marwan ElShorbagy in action
“Mo is amazing. Marwan didn’t have Mo’s physical strength, so he learned to skin a cat in different ways. Mo had power; Marwan learned subtlety.”
Their progress has been impressive in different ways. By the time they left Millfield and gained degrees at the University of the West of England in Bristol, their feelings about a foreign land were also transformed.
“Every time I went back to Egypt, I used to look forward. I couldn’t wait for that moment,” reveals Marwan. “Now I can’t wait to go to England – it’s the other way round. What’s happened is amazing. ”
Mohamed agrees. “It’s been difficult in a different way for each of us,” he concludes. “But it’s great that we’ve shown the world how important a brotherly relationship really is. That’s how it should be.”