By by RJ Mitchell
Mohamed ElShorbagy has fired a warning to Paul Coll that if he wants to break the Egyptian stranglehold at the top of the men’s game he will need to ‘come to Egypt and beat the Egyptians’ on their own soil.
Over the past year, New Zealand’s Coll has started to emerge as the main threat to the Egyptian dominance on the men’s tour, with all top four slots in the PSA World Rankings currently held by Egyptian stars, and the game’s two biggest titles being held by ElShorbagy (British Open) and Tarek Momen (World Championship).
Yet it is Superman who has come closest to loosening this vice-like grip, with the Kiwi making it to last year’s World Championship final only to be beaten by Momen.
Then, earlier this year at the Windy City Open in Chicago – in the penultimate men’s tournament before the PSA World Tour’s suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic – Coll claimed his first ever win over ElShorbagy at the quarter final stage.
He then beat Karim Abdel Gawad in the semis before taking a two-game lead against Ali Farag in the final, only to run out of gas and come up just short in five epic games.
And with four of the seven tournaments announced in the PSA’s provisional schedule for the return of the tour set to be played in Egypt, Coll made the point last week in an interview with the PSA website that his Egyptian rivals have been handed a home advantage.
ElShorbagy has trained regularly with Coll and, while the World No.1 admits that an Egyptian advantage is beyond dispute, he has laid down a challenge to the Kiwi, saying that Coll will need to perform well on Egyptian territory if he is to challenge at the sport’s summit.
ElShorbagy in action against Paul Coll at the Windy City Open
“I was interested about Paul’s words last week, and he is right that with four of the tournaments scheduled to be in Egypt, it does give the Egyptian players an advantage, but if Paul really wants to be No.1, really wants it, then he has to come to Egypt and beat the Egyptians,” said ElShorbagy.
“If you want to be top then you are ready to face any challenge and take it on and I know Paul is someone who loves a challenge. I would say that over the last two years he has become the main challenger to me, Ali, Tarek and Karim. Of course, he got his first win over me at the Windy City and that will have given him a huge confidence boost and the belief he needs to kick on.
“For a lot of the time, Simon [Rösner] was our main challenger and I know that he will come back even more determined when we resume, but maybe over the last year or more it has been Paul and, when he is on, Diego [Elias], but to be fair to Paul he has now beaten all of us and he is really knocking at the door. At 28, his best years are still very much in front of him.
“I like Paul and I respect him a lot, and when he has been at Birmingham training with Rob Owen, I have driven over from Bristol to train with them and really enjoyed the experience. Paul has showed a lot of bravery to remodel his game technically as it’s the hardest thing to do for a top player.
“His is sitting at five in the world and he made a decision that, especially on the forehand, he needed to make changes as he realised that without them he would perhaps not go any higher. Well, he made these changes and you saw at the Windy City that he is now the real threat to me and my countryman.
“He played really well to take me out in the quarters and then he came back and beat Gawad in the semis, really backed up his win over me and then he went onto the final and was two up against Ali and he ran out of gas.
“So what that told me is that Paul has the mentality now, the belief and the knowledge that he can beat one of us, come back and do it again and for him that will be massive. If he wants to win a major title there is a very strong chance he will have to beat more than one of us to lift it.
“I would say that in terms of consistency, he is now close to Karim and Tarek but still a bit off myself and Ali, but that is the challenge that awaits him when we get going again.”
ElShorbagy, who regained the World No.1 ranking for the fourth time earlier this year, is also more than aware of the growing threat from Peru’s World No.6 Diego Elias.
“I think that Diego is another player who, on his day, can beat anyone but right now he has not been able to back up a big win, and until he does that there will always be a question over him in terms of him going the whole way,” said ElShorbagy.
“For example, in 2018 at the Qatar Classic he played a great match to beat me in five games, but then in the semis, Simon Rosner defeated him 3-0. While at the U.S. Open last year Diego beat Karim in the quarters only for Ali to beat him in straight games.
Diego Elias in action against ElShorbagy at the 2019 PSA World Tour Finals
“When you play Diego, you know that if he is at his best then there is a very real danger you will not be able to stop him, but at the moment he has not added the consistency, the mental toughness that Paul has.
“But I follow Diego on Instagram and from what I have seen it looks like he has been working real hard during the suspension to get himself in fantastic shape, so it will be very interesting to see how he comes back.
“In terms of ability, then outside of the Egyptian group at the top, Diego is the player with the most natural ability and the weapons that can worry us.”
ElShorbagy has also revealed his delight at the words of wisdom bestowed by one of his boyhood heroes, Pakistani legend Jansher Khan, in an exclusive PSA interview last Friday, in which the game’s longest serving male World No.1 identified the unique pressures felt by the man at the top of the men’s rankings.
ElShorbagy said: “I really enjoyed reading the interview with Jansher on the PSA website because he was such a huge inspiration for me when I was a kid. When I joined up with Jonah [Barrington] at Millfield, we watched video of Jansher and how he changed and evolved his game and Jonah made the point to me that he was always adding and developing his squash.
“I am not and never have been a similar type of player to Jansher but definitely with Jonah we used some of the methods he used, and I would have to say that every single word he spoke in the interview resonated with me.
“No one knows better than Jansher the pressures of being No.1 and staying No.1. He was there for 10 years at the top and his consistency was unbelievable and when someone like Jansher speaks you have to listen and take note, so I really enjoyed reading his words and I hope very much that sometime soon I will have the chance to speak with him and tell him that.”
As he looked forward to the scheduled resumption of the PSA World Tour at Manchester on September 16, ElShorbagy was keen to express his gratitude that squash is finally emerging from the other side of the pandemic.
“It is time that squash is back,” said ElShorbagy.
“Football is being played, Formula One is racing again and the snooker World Championships were just played, and they had some fans in at the Crucible, so it is more than time that the players were back on court.
“The PSA have done very well to get the provisional schedule out and now we await confirmation it will go ahead as scheduled on September 4. But it is absolutely fantastic that our sponsors have stayed behind us and that we have Platinum tournaments being played before Christmas.
“Yes, four of the tournaments are in Egypt, but when you see the backing that CIB have given our game then that is the way it is. What matters most is that the PSA World Tour is back up and playing again, not where it is being played.
“So, on behalf of all the players we owe both the board of the PSA and the sponsors they have brought to the game a big thanks for this and I can’t wait to get going again.”
As he took stock of a professional career that has already spanned 14 years and spawned multiple major titles, ElShorbagy reaffirmed his hunger for battle and the relish with which he is facing the new challenges ahead.
“I am 29 and basically the same age as Karim, a year-older than Ali and three years younger than Tarek, so age is not an issue and nor is my hunger,” the three-time British Open champion said.
“Yes, I may have more miles on the clock as I have played more matches at the top level for longer than these guys, but my body is good and as long as it stays that way then I will continue to play.
“I am one of these guys who, when I have achieved one goal, then I move on to the next and that is why my coaching relationship with Rodney Martin and Hadrian Stiff is working so well.
“But what I really love is winning and of course you are only going to be able to win the big titles and stay at the very top for so long and when that changes I may look at things differently. But right now, I am just focused on getting back on the court and I have every confidence that I still have a good few years left.”