By RJ Mitchell
Nour El Sherbini is hoping that the five-month suspension of the PSA World Tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic has given her right knee the chance to heal.
The 24 year-old’s season last time around was blighted by a complex knee issue that has dogged her for almost a decade and saw El Sherbini miss the early parts of the season.
Yet amazingly, she was able to play through the pain barrier to defeat her long-term rival for global supremacy Raneem El Welily and claim her fourth World Championship crown, in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
In 2020, El Sherbini overcame her injury issue at Grand Central Station in New York to make the Tournament of Champions final against Camille Serme, where she played with her wounded knee strapped up and was forced to take an injury time out en route to a straight games defeat.
This was followed by a stunning return to championship glory when she defeated then World No.1 Raneem El Welily in five games at the Windy City Open in Chicago. El Sherbini then came up just short in Cairo in the final tournament before the tour was suspended, when she lost an epic fifth game tie-break to Hania El Hammamy by a 13-11 margin.
The 21-time PSA Tour title winner’s impressive displays landed El Sherbini the prestigious PSA Women’s Player of the Year award and now, as she awaits the green-light from her specialist to travel to Manchester next month for the opening tournament on the PSA’s provisional tour calendar, ‘The Warrior Princess’ says she can’t wait to re-join the battle to claim the No.1 ranking once again.
“It is a frustration when you are playing tournaments and you know that your body is not 100% and a lot of the time my mind was half on my knee, and I was asking myself how is it going to react to a tough movement or to a big lunge and then after the match you wonder how it will be the next day if you have to play again,” revealed El Sherbini.
Nour El Sherbini with the 2019-20 PSA Women's World Championship trophy
“Yet perhaps in some ways it made me concentrate more on my game and my shots and be that bit more disciplined but really I had to take it day by day and I just didn’t know what was going to happen or how it was going to work out.
“For me that meant making the last three finals of last season was a really positive way to finish what was a difficult year. Now I am due to see my specialist before Manchester and I have to say that my knee is feeling a lot better and that makes me positive looking forward.
“I had surgery on my right knee almost 10 years ago and at some point a bit of bone broke off and ended up floating about in the area between the cartilage and the knee joint and obviously that has been very frustrating for me.
“I had a good plan for last season and had trained extremely hard and then the problem resurfaced before the season and of course I had to pull out of the U.S. Open. Although I came back, I was only able to play half the tournaments I had planned to play, and I missed so much in the first half of the season.
“But having said all that, I did manage to win the World Championship and the Windy City and made two other finals, and I felt like when the season was suspended after the Black Ball in Cairo I was not far away from my best when I lost to Hania in the final.
“Like I said, I felt that the experience did improve my concentration levels and now I am looking to Manchester and just hoping to play free and relaxed again.”
With long-reigning World No.1 Raneem El Welily retiring at the end of June and being succeeded by Nouran Gohar, the competition to become the game’s dominant force has surely never been so intense in the women’s game with perhaps as many as eight players vying for top spot when the tour gets under way again.
Yet El Sherbini has admitted that Raneem’s retirement will rob squash of one its most popular characters and also expressed her belief that their rivalry, which spanned 24 matches, was a key factor in her rise to one of the sport’s leading players at just 24.
Raneem El Welily (left) takes on El Sherbini during the 2020 Windy City Open final
The World Champion said: “I will miss Raneem so much when we get back out on tour. We have shared so much on the court together and we played in so many big matches including one British Open final and three World Championship finals, and I have no doubt that our rivalry helped improve and develop me and I hope she enjoyed our matches as much as I enjoyed them.
“Raneem was a pleasure to share the court with and we also had some good times off it, and I just think it is sad that she has decided to retire, although I fully understand her reasons. We as players on the tour will definitely miss her, but I just wanted to say that I wish Raneem every happiness in the world for her future with Tarek [Momen].”
Meanwhile, El Sherbini was delighted to receive the glowing accolade paid to her by the legendary three-time World Champion Michelle Martin last Friday in an interview on the PSA website, who tipped her to reclaim the game’s top ranking.
“It was an honour to hear that Michelle had said these kind things about me. For someone like Michelle who won so many major titles and was World No.1 for so long to speak highly of me gives me a genuinely nice feeling,” said El Sherbini.
But as El Sherbini revealed, while she enjoys an advantage in big title experience over her rivals, the vibrancy and quality in the women’s top 10 will mean all bets are off when it comes to predicting who will come out top when the PSA World Tour finally gets back on the road.
“It is perhaps true that I have the advantage over the other girls in experience and in the tough moments that is when you look to make the most of that experience, and I hope that the opportunity to have rested my knee will be a big help when we return to competitive play.
“But when you look at how last season ended with three different winners in the three final Platinum events of the season then that tells you that the women’s game is just incredibly competitive.
“I know that for sure Hania will be very determined to build on her win at the Black Ball and of course Nouran has gone to No.1 and she has also had time to recover from an injury which affected her in Cairo just before the suspension and of course Camille won at ToC.
“SJ [Perry] finished the season very strongly and of course Nour [El Tayeb] will be determined to make a good start to the new season and Rowan Elaraby is another girl from my country who has a big future.
El Sherbini lines up against Camille Serme (left)
“So, what you have to say is that there are now so many good players in the women’s game and when they are on form, they can beat the others. Of one thing I have no doubt and that is we will have some fantastic matches when we get back out there.”
As she looked forward to the provisional event calendar released by the PSA for the resumption of squash, the World Champion was keen to laud both the governing body and key title sponsors CIB who have backed four of the seven events including the World Tour Finals, Egyptian Open, El Gouna International and Black Ball Open.
El Sherbini said: “I think the PSA have put together an incredibly good and a very sensible provisional schedule. I know that people will look at the schedule and say that there are four tournaments in Egypt and that will have given the Egyptian players an advantage and of course we love to play in our homeland, that is very true.
“But at the same time we must look at the support and sponsorship being provided by CIB which is unbelievable, and when you consider how tough it is to get major sponsors to back tournaments right now, then we owe CIB a huge thanks for their backing and also to the PSA for developing that relationship with them.
“CIB have also done so much for squash in Egypt and in this respect that has helped the PSA and that is a positive. So, from a player’s point of view, I think we are just delighted to have the schedule out and to have the quality of tournament that we do on it.
“To have five Platinum events and a PSA World Tour Finals in there is a real achievement at such a challenging time.”