By RJ Mitchell
Ali Farag has set himself a title hat-trick target ahead of next month’s CIB Black Ball Open, which will be the final PSA World Tour competition of the year.
Not content with reclaiming the World No.1 ranking for a second time and notching back-to-back titles at both the Egyptian Open and Qatar Classic, the 28 year-old is determined to make it three title wins in-a-row for the first time in his career.
Farag’s form has been impressive over the four tournaments that have come at the start of the PSA World Tour’s return.
A quarter-final defeat at the Manchester Open and a semi-final set-back at the CIB World Tour Finals, both at the hands of Marwan ElShorbagy, were quickly consigned to the history books after a comprehensive victory in the finals of the Egyptian Open against World Champion Tarek Momen and a gritty four-game triumph over World No.5 Paul Coll at the Qatar Classic.
All of which have prompted Farag to believe that he is once again at the top of his game as he looks forward to a New Year in which his arch-rival Mohamed ElShorbagy will once again return to the fray determined to reclaim the No.1 ranking for a fifth time.
Farag said: “Of course, I always wanted to get the No.1 ranking back and I am pleased to have reclaimed it, but this time I feel like I am a lot calmer about things, I feel more composed and I feel that I have regained the level of squash that took me to No.1 the first time and now I want to improve on that.
“I knew how tough it would be to get it back, but that is not something I spent much time thinking on as I prefer to focus on my performance. I knew what was required to do that as I had the experience and that has been a help but again I focus on my performances not on the other players.
“But Mohamed is such a warrior, and how many times as he been No.1? Four, I believe. So, I knew that this was going to be tough and of course I am pleased to regain it but also aware of how much hard work will be required to stay top.
“As someone once said: ‘My biggest fear is not failure itself but the fear of failure’. I think that is a great way of putting things, so for me what matters is that I give it my absolute best every time I am on a court.
“To win back-to-back titles by claiming the Egyptian Open and the Qatar Classic is special, but now to try and win a third title in a row at the Black Ball would be fantastic and something I have not achieved before.
“But, for sure, to be at the top again at the end of such a challenging year is something I am very happy to have achieved.”
While Farag’s form has become increasingly flawless, the lack of game time banked by his Mohamed appeared to catch up with ‘The Beast of Alexandria’ in Qatar where he fell to a shock third round defeat at the hands of Youssef Ibrahim.
This came after ElShorbagy had missed out on the previous two tournaments due to personal reasons, meaning Farag holds on to top spot by a slender 500 ranking points.
All of which means that when the competitive calendar is announced for 2021, ElShorbagy, who will also sit out the Black Ball Open in December, will have a mountain to climb to regain the World No.1 ranking for a fifth time while also shedding off the rust from a lack of competitive action.
Yet Farag remains braced for a fresh onslaught from The Beast: “I have huge respect for Mohamed. He is the player who has been at the top all along. He challenged Greg [Gaultier], Ramy [Ashour], Nick [Matthew] and then he has dealt with our generation of player and now he is still there and the man to beat for the next generation.
Ali Farag (left) and Mohamed ElShorbagy (right) locked in the heat of battle
“What has also really impressed me about Mohamed is that he takes his losses, never makes excuses and just gets on with it but he always comes back stronger and you can be sure he will be back in the New Year even more determined to get back to No.1.
“But what he has also achieved is that he has drawn us all along with him, he has forced us to lift our standards and he has been good for the sport of squash in itself and achieved so much for our game.”
Two weeks ago, Farag captured his 21st PSA title following an 11-8, 6-11, 11-9, 11-9 victory over Kiwi Coll in 61 rollercoaster minutes
“I was really pleased with how Qatar went and how I just got on with my business, didn’t worry about ranking points and I took it match-by-match,” Farag said.
“I mean no offence to anyone, but with each round it got tougher and that helped me to shift through the gears and that was satisfying.
“When it came to the final then I would say that I have never played a match with Paul [Coll] that I have not enjoyed. He is a real warrior, and he brings everything but plays with a fair spirit and I respect that immensely and as always it was a real battle.
“Not only is playing Paul a challenge both mentally and physically but increasingly he is becoming harder tactically to play against. He is varying his tactics from match to match and now almost within the points themselves and there is an intensity to his game that brings out the best in me.
“So, to defeat Paul in the final and after such a tough match was really satisfying and it has given me a good platform moving on to the Black Ball next month.”
Yet there is one itch that Farag is hungry to scratch before the door slams shut on 2020.
Marwan ElShorbagy (left) has been a thorn in Farag's side
Twice since the resumption he has fallen to the the younger ElShorbagy brother as ‘The Jackal’ has extended his winning head-to-head record against his fellow Egyptian to 6-4.
“Without doub,t Marwan is one of the smartest players on the tour, he has what you would call a street smartness about him. I would also say that he hits the best lines on the tour, really he is second to none in that respect,” said Farag.
“But now he has improved his movement to the front of the court and especially that first stride off the ’T’ is much more efficient and you have seen the difference in his results with winning the World Tour Finals.
“At Manchester it was not my best match against him but in the World Tour Finals it was very tight and I had a match ball and could not close it out and he went on to win the title and credit to Marwan for that.
“I am not one to worry about head-to-head results against someone or my record against this guy or that, but what I will say is that I am really looking forward to our next match!”