Exclusive by RJ Mitchell
Nouran Gohar has revealed that Raneem El Welily phoned her personally to break the news of her retirement and the 22-year-old’s subsequent elevation to become the 16th female to top the PSA World Rankings in the modern era.
Speaking exclusively to the PSA World Tour website, Gohar revealed that she had been left in tears by the news her great friend had decided to call time on her 18-year career, which saw her top the World Rankings for a total of 23 months to put her sixth on the all-time longevity list.
The news at her own elevation to No.1 was not only tinged with sadness at the retirement of her closest personal friend on the tour, it also came not after the heat of an epic on-court battle had died away but surreally in the office of a Cairo construction company, where Nouran has taken an internship to help her complete her engineering degree with the American University of Cairo.
Yet with the courts of her club, the Wadi Degla, due to open tomorrow as squash starts to emerge from the lockdown in her native Egypt, Gohar is looking forward to treading the boards again, for the first time as the global game’s new No.1.
As she relived arguably the greatest possible moment in any squash player’s career, and one so few get to savour, Nouran admitted she is still struggling to come to terms with her elevation to the summit of the women’s rankings.
“It was unbelievable that Raneem called me to let me know that she was retiring and that I would be the new No.1 and to be honest I am still pinching myself that it is true,” said Gohar.
“It was just so surreal. During the tour suspension I decided to take an internship with a construction company in Cairo and I was actually in the office when my phone went and it was Raneem and I could not believe what she was telling me. I was just so full of mixed emotions, so sad that she was retiring and so happy to be No.1 and I guess the tears flowed a bit.
Gohar & El Welily at Windy City Open 2020 - their last match together
“Raneem is such a great person and I am closer to her than anyone on tour and I am so sad she is retiring but at the same time to go No.1, well that is the pinnacle of your journey as a squash player and with it coming when I have not even been on court, it is a bit weird.”
But this most modest and humble of champions was determined to record a suitable homage to her friend and predecessor as women’s No.1: “For me it is very important to pay a special tribute to Raneem, for without her squash would not be what it is in Egypt. She was our first World No.1 and a huge part of why there are five Egyptian girls in the top 10, although now we are four.
“When I took up squash Raneem was already the World Junior Champion and an amazing player, but she also was an amazing role model. We also played on the same teams for Egypt and she was always an amazing and supportive teammate.
We are both members of the same club at the Wadi Degla and for me to be training with her and watch her on court next to me and learn from her was just the best.
“Even at tournaments sometimes she would be in my corner helping me out and that is just the type of person she is. Raneem is just such a special person and I am very sad that she is retiring, but I know for sure that whatever she does from here on she will be brilliant at it and I wish her and Tarek [men’s World Champion, Momen] all the very best going forward.”
While Gohar, who is eight years El Welily’s junior, was on the wrong end of a 13-4 head-to-head record against her senior opponent, she did boast a 2-1 success rate in their British Open encounters.
Indeed it was the new World No.1’s straight games quarter-final victory over Raneem on her run to the 2019 Allam British Open title which Gohar has no doubt in singling out as the key to that triumph and arguably the most complete single performance of her career to date.
The British Open champion said: “I know my head to head against Raneem is not the best, but I like to think that over the last three or four seasons we have had some great matches. I would have to say that probably the biggest win of my career came against Raneem when I beat her in the quarter-finals of the British Open last year on my way to winning it.
Allam British Open 2019
“To defeat Raneem is tough enough but to beat her in straight sets when she was No.1 seed, made me produce my absolute best and my most complete performance on tour. It also gave me huge belief for the rest of the tournament and what was toughest for me was not to let that win distract me from focussing on the rest of the tournament.
“But it was a massive win for me on so many levels, not just because Raneem was No.1, an icon of our game and everything she has done for squash in Egypt and the Middle East but also because I respect her so much as a person and beating her set me on the road to winning my British Open title, for sure.”
Gohar has no doubt that her compatriot, who has been No.1 for the last 19 months and amassed a total of 24 titles, including the 2017 PSA World Championship, deserves to be revered as a squash legend: “Definitely, I think Raneem deserves to be considered an all-time great. She ended Nicol David’s nine-year reign as No.1 and then went on to spend so much time at No.1 herself and virtually was top for the last two years.
“But she has also shown the heart of a great champion because she has had her struggles to overcome and at one point she dropped to No.5 but showed immense determination by coming back from that to reclaim No.1 and now she is going out on top.
“Not only was she a fantastic player, but I was lucky to see how hard she worked on the practise court, her work ethic was unbelievable but again I have to say despite her determination and desire to win she also was a very kind hearted person, very considerate and just a true friend and I will miss her on tour massively.
“To be No.1 now is absolutely amazing. It is something I have dreamt off since I was a kid but never thought would happen. Especially since I made it to No.2 four years back at 19 and then with injuries I dropped back as low as eight and now I have finally got to No.1, so it has been a long time coming.
“Although it is kind of weird to go No.1 when the tour is suspended it is also very special to me given the injury issues I had earlier this year with Plantar Fasciitis, when I had to pull out of the CIB Black Ball Open and I was very down and then also not getting to defend my British Open title due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
“But succeeding to No.1 after Raneem has wiped away all of that disappointment and I could not be more honoured to be following such a special person as Raneem. The squash courts in Egypt are opening tomorrow and I can’t wait to get back on court at the Wadi Degla as the new No.1.
“Maybe it didn’t come my way on court, but you know after everything I’ve been through over the last four years since I was No.2 for the first time, I will take it!”
Gohar at this year's CIB Black Ball Open
Typically, the new PSA women’s No.1 was keen to salute those that have played a key part in her rise to the summit of the game: “I have so many people to thank for helping me get to No.1 and making my squash journey possible. Firstly, I must say thanks to my parents Laila and Ahmed. My mum was present when I won the British Open and my dad when I won the US Open, so they are both my lucky charms and they have sacrificed so much for me to go on this amazing journey,” said Nouran.
“Then there is my team. My coach Omar (Abdel Aziz) has been with me since I was 15 and he has seen it all, stuck with me through the darkest of times and for sure he could write a book about his experiences with me. But Omar has never lost hope, always been there for me and I owe him a huge thanks.
“I must also thank Karim Darwish for his special help and then my fitness coach Hassam Shaddad and Derek Ryan [PSA World Tour Physio] because their work has helped me so much on cutting down on the niggling injuries that were causing me so many problems.
“Without your body you can’t perform, as I found out again painfully in Cairo before the suspension of the tour and also my main physio Mohamed Wafaeey, who basically saved me from going through a knee operation I didn’t need to have.
“Then there are my main sponsors like Red Bull and CIB and of course Tecnifibre. I’m sorry if there is anyone I have missed out, but I am just so super excited about this and really proud to make it to No.1 at last.”