By RJ Mitchell
Former World No.1 Peter Nicol believes that the return to the PSA World Tour of four-time World No.1 Mohamed ElShorbagy will provide a “great test” of the Egyptian’s desire to prove that he is still the game’s ultimate player.
ElShorbagy, who turned 30 earlier this month, has not played since suffering a shock third round loss at the Qatar Classic to Youssef Ibrahim back in November.
With dates for the resumption of the PSA World Tour still to be confirmed and released the likelihood is that the former World Champion is looking at a minimum three – month gap between the Ibrahim defeat and any return to the competitive fray.
All of which has left former British and World champion Nicol to admit that ElShorbagy will have questions to answer when the second-half of the season finally unfolds.
The great Scot said: “It will be a great test for Mohamed. The reason he has been No.1 on so many occasions for so long, won the World Championship and British Opens is that he has that mental capacity and toughness, so it will be interesting to check out his desire levels when we come back.
“He has been at it a long time, had a break and now let’s see, is he still up for it? If he is and he wants to be it’s an exciting time for Mohamed. It’s a chance to show he is still relevant, in fact more than relevant, he can demonstrate he is still the best and I am sure that will be a huge motivation for Mohamed.”
While admitting that he never experienced a similar hiatus during his garlanded career, Nicol, whose 1999 World Title success over Ahmed Barada created a three – year reign as global ruler because the World Championship wasn’t held in 2000 or 2001, reckons that even ElShorbagy’s renowned single-mindedness will be threatened by doubts.
“Right at the peak of my career there was a two-year break in the World Champs and for me it was always interesting to come back, always these questions: ‘Am I ready? Do I believe I am ready? Do I have that confidence? Am I going to fail?’ So many questions. It was tough but every player will be going through that when they get back because we are talking a break of maybe a couple of months or more.
“But you are a professional sports person and it’s all about confidence, that feeling you will be fine. The reality is that Mohamed doesn’t have that, neither will anyone else by the time the tour restarts but he will have been out for longer and had less competitive game time, so he is going to have it tougher.
Mohamed ElShorbagy against Youssef Ibrahim at the Qatar Classic
“It’s always hard when you have been out for a while. Although I didn’t suffer injuries in my career as such, but we always started our season in Hong Kong in August, and it was always tough to know have you prepared well? Have you peaked? Are you good? Whereas if you have been playing you know where you are at.”
Nicol, who along with the immortal Jansher Khan holds the record of six spells as outright World No.1, also reckons that ElShorbagy’s surprise defeat by Ibrahim, which was arguably one of the biggest shocks of 2020, may have been gnawing away at ‘The Beast of Alexandria’ during the darkness of the winter months.
Nicol, the first Brit to become World No.1 in 1998, said: “I can’t say what he is thinking or doing.
“What I can say is that I know that feeling and I know there will be questions in his head, and he will be either desperate to answer them or scared of answering them. Either way we will find that out.
“For me, it wasn’t so much knowing when I was starting to slip as it was just knowing I was done. There were definitely matches that I felt I had reached a point that I just didn’t want to do this anymore or to put in the work behind the scenes to keep up.”
But as Nicol admitted there comes a moment when every gunslinger knows he is no longer the quickest on the draw: “There was one specific match however and it was against Greg Gautier at ToC 2006, the year I retired, we had this two-hour match, and it was a great match and he won 3-2, maybe it wasn’t just that one match in isolation, but Greg was one of these players that made me think that way because of the way he played and how physical and how hard he made it.
“It was like a case of we are going into battle again? I was saying to myself I am kind of tired of this. How many more of those do I want to go through and the only way to go back and beat Greg was to train harder, change things up and I knew I wasn’t going to do that. Yes, I did happen to beat him in Bermuda 3-0 around four weeks later, but it was more I knew that wasn’t sustainable.
“But Mohamed is younger than I was and if he still wants it, he still has a good few years left, it’s just a question of how much he still wants it and it’s mental more than anything else.”
Turning his attention to the French General’s bid to regain his top-20 status Nicol said: “I saw the game against Marwan [ElShorbagy] in the second round at Qatar, and Greg didn’t look fit, looked like he was struggling, but listen if Greg wants to keep playing, wants to have these goals and is still enjoying it, then he is a great character. It is also great for the game to have him still around and that would be fantastic.
Gregory Gaultier at the CIB Black Ball Open
“But to what extent and how far he can go it depends how physically able he is, and I don’t have the answer for that one.”
The eloquent Scot was also keen to turn his microscope on Fares Dessouky whose scorching run to the Black Ball title in December has some predicting the 26 – year-old could at last fulfil his outstanding potential in 2021.
“Fares always had the ability from a squash playing point of view and he has finally put it together over one tournament and shown that he can front up and mentally he is strong enough to beat the top players in successive matches.
“But next is the tough part. What’s he going to do now? Can he keep lifting his game and himself to keep performing at the level he produced in the Black Ball? He has gone from almost an underperformer in terms of his talent and raw ability to finally put it together but now the question is can he be consistent? Bring that level of performance into the next tournament and the next tournament after that?
“I’m sure Fares is excited to do that, but people will be trying to work him out. Asking: ‘What did he change up at the Black Ball?’ So that will be a game of cat and mouse which it will be fascinating to see how it pans out.”
Looking back on the iconic rivalries that spanned his own stellar career, which read like a who’s who of the modern game, Nicol has no doubt that however the cards fall in the months ahead when squash returns this is a vital part of what makes our game great.
The only Scot to command the summit of the game’s rankings said: “It started with Jansher [Khan] then progressed to Jonathon [Power] and at the end there was a whole bunch of players challenging like Thierry [Lincou], David [Palmer], [Amr] Shabana and John White and there was a great mix to it, so there were almost three different ages to it.
“But the main one for me was my rivalry with Jonathon and that was hugely important as it challenged me on a continual basis. Did I like it at the time? No. But if he hadn’t been there challenging me, I don’t think I would have kept pushing myself as hard as I did nor been as motivated as I was.
“It made me a much better player and made me understand more about myself. I firmly believe rivalries are hugely important to our game and there are only some players who get to be part of these and for me it was really important to push me and keep pushing me.”