By RJ Mitchell
Karim Abdel Gawad has revealed that as he gets ready for the resumption of the PSA World Tour, the words of wisdom bestowed on him by the great Amr Shabana have given him fresh belief that he can reclaim his former status as World No.1 and World Champion.
The Alexandria-born 29 year-old grew up not far away from the four-time World Champion and ultimately became Shabana’s training partner and roommate as ‘The Maestro’ wound down towards his eventual retirement in 2015. The following year, Gawad followed in his footsteps to become World Champion, before claiming the World No.1 ranking briefly in 2017.
Gawad’s crowning achievement came at just 25 years-old and his form suggested that he could go on to establish himself as a serial title-winner and the man to beat on the men’s tour.
But while honours have come in the intervening years, injury and inconsistency have blighted his subsequent seasons and have seen Gawad fall behind compatriots Mohamed ElShorbagy and Ali Farag in the race for top spot.
Gawad’s soft hands and quality shot-making have seen him become a firm fan favourite and he has proven almost invincible on Egyptian soil, where he won the World Championship in 2016 before capturing the Black Ball Open, PSA World Tour Finals and CIB Egyptian Open, the latter of which saw him capture a second title in front of the iconic Great Pyramid of Giza.
Now with four of the seven provisional tournaments scheduled for the resumption of the PSA World Tour scheduled to take place in Egypt, the affable Gawad is looking to return to his best while taking inspiration from the words of his boyhood hero.
“When I was a young player I would listen to Amr Shabana and he would always tell me that he believed strongly that he played his best squash at 29 or 30 years-old, and now I am 29 I can hear his words and I very much hope he is right,” said the World No.3.
“We lived not far away from each other and as I developed as a teenager it made it easy for me to train with him at the City View Compound, where qualification for the Pyramids [Al Ahram Open] in 2016 was held, and he gave me so much encouragement and advice as well as his time and I will always be grateful to Amr for all of that.
“Then I was really lucky to become his training partner and his roommate for the last few years of his professional career before his retirement and of course like so many Egyptian kids, with Amr being our first ever World Champion in 2003, he was my idol.
“But I believe that of his four world titles he did win one of these in his 30s, so I know that he spoke from experience when he told me about reaching his peak at around 30, and I will keep working hard to prove his words were right.
Amr Shabana with the 2009 World Championship trophy
“Having been No.1 and having been World Champion, I know exactly how tough it is to get there and it is even harder to stay there. Obviously, I would love to make it back to the top of the rankings. To do that, I will need to develop extra consistency in my game, but to get back to No.1 would mean so much to me and perhaps even more so as I have already had that experience.”
As the softly-spoken Gawd takes stock of those occupying the two positions between him and his destination of choice, he admits there is a reason he has been left looking up when it comes to the World Rankings.
“If I look at Mohamed and Ali then the main difference between them and me is that they are making the finals of almost every tournament they play in while, although I do make finals, for the most part I am in the semi-finals,” Gawad said.
“So, what I need to do is to make sure I am able to take that one step further. Maybe in the earlier rounds, too many times, I find myself in tough matches and that can weaken you later on in the draw, so maybe my focus needs to be stronger earlier.
“But you don’t lose big matches without a reason, however small that reason may be. One thing myself and my coaching team of Omar Abdel Aziz, Mahmoud Abdel Kader, and Ali Ismail are strong on is video analysis of all my games.
“We watch everything back and whether there is a movement issue, a technical problem or my court positioning, we are looking to pick up on everything and find the small percentages that will perhaps turn a loss into a win.
“But I speak with my coaching team after every game and obviously we review each tournament and I feel there are things we have picked up on from last season that can be fixed and strengthened and that this will stand me in good stead when we return to competition.”
Yet while Gawad may prefer to keep his attention trained on the top of the rankings, he admits he has reasons to be looking over his shoulder: “The top six are all awfully close and you would have to say that everyone in there has a hope that he could make it to World No.1 if things go right for him.
“I know that Paul Coll has developed his game well and of course he beat me in the semis at the Windy City back in March, and it was obvious to me then that he made big improvements in a short time.
“The thing about Paul is he has a great attitude and he is very tough mentally. Having said that, I have always enjoyed playing him. But now with the additions he has made to his game on top of his superb conditioning he is going to be extremely dangerous to everyone in the top four and in fact he has already beaten every one of us.”
Gawad in action against Paul Coll at the 2020 Windy City Open
When it comes to the prospects of his amazing success rate on Egyptian soil, Gawad is candid about his reasons to be cheerful about the provisional PSA World Tour schedule.
“I love playing in Egypt and I think it’s because I just feel that bit more relaxed and don’t feel the same pressure. You can take the car to practice, your family are around you and you can enjoy a normal routine outside of your matches and that really works for me.
“I think this is reflected in my performances in my homeland and I have been lucky enough to win the Black Ball Open, the World Tour Finals and the CIB Egyptian Open, and I am really looking forward to competing in these great championships again.
“It is a great honour for Egypt to host four of the seven tournaments on the PSA schedule and tremendous credit must go to CIB as main sponsors.”
Yet while the suspension of the tour will have lasted six months by the time of the scheduled resumption in Manchester on September 16, Gawad has admitted this has not been long enough to make significant adjustments to his game.
The former World No.1 said: “If the provisional schedule does start with Manchester next month then we will have been away from competitive squash and the tour for almost six months and that is a long time away from squash.
“But what I would say is that it has not been long enough to make major changes to your game. If you consider that in Egypt the courts have only been open for around a month that has not been enough to really overhaul your game.
“Up until the courts opened, I concentrated on running outside, working hard on my indoor bike and doing some dumbbells and I just focused doing basic stuff to keep my body and muscles ticking over and stay in basic good shape.
“On top of that, up until the suspension of the tour I had played a lot of squash and it was good to give my body a break and recharge mentally but what you have to remember is that when you return to the court to train specifically as a squash professional this is a whole different level of intensity.
“So, when you come back you have to ease back into your court work because when you are away from squash-specific movement for that length of time, you can’t afford to go at full pace straight away.
“At best, when the tour restarts, as and when we hope it will, then the players will have had around two and a half months to prepare and what I am focusing on is the tour resuming and making sure that I am in the best shape I can be to produce my best form as soon as it is possible.”