By RJ Mitchell
In the second part of an exclusive look back over his 15 years on the PSA World Tour and the rivalries that have defined his career, Mohamed ElShorbagy has turned his attention to his battles with Ramy Ashour.
The duo first met in the quarter-finals of the Saudi International in 2009 with ‘The Artist’, who was just under four years ElShorbagy’s senior, schooling his younger opponent in three straight games.
The two Egyptians were to go on to meet on 10 more occasions before their concluding encounter in the final of the Grasshopper Cup in Switzerland in 2018, yet because of Ashour’s persistent vulnerability to a hamstring injury, their 11 meetings were to be the least frequent of all ElShorbagy’s career defining rivalries.
Despite that, the World No.2 has no doubt that Ashour was the greatest player he has ever faced on court and revealed that he produced the finest squash of his career against Ashour in an epic match, which he lost.
However, ElShorbagy admits that he had hoped for so much more from their rivalry, only for the knee injury that caused Ashour to retire tragically early at just 31, on April 22, 2019, to bring that to an unfulfilled climax after just 11 clashes.
“Ramy, on his day, was just the best player I ever had to play against, 100 per cent he was the most gifted shotmaker I played,” admitted El Shorbagy.
“I have never seen a player like him in my life. Obviously, I have not watched all of the players who have played the sport before me, but in my lifetime and my time of playing, Ramy was unique. I think that is how everyone felt who went on court against him.
“But it was a rivalry that never really happened the way we would have wanted as, unfortunately because of his injuries, we played only 11 times. For me it could have been one of my best rivalries, but we just didn’t get that chance to make it happen.
“But we played some very big matches on these 11 occasions we met, like two World Championship finals a British Open final, two El Gouna finals a World Series final and obviously he won most of these.
“I remember even when he was getting injured, there was a season when he played just three tournaments out of 12 and any time his name was in the draw, well, I just had to train differently. Ramy just required all of us to think about how we could train to beat him.
“I didn’t have that chance as much as Nick [Matthew], Greg [Gaultier] or [Amr] Shabana as they played him 20 times or more and I just wish we had played way more than this. When I look back at the matches I played with Greg and Nick, I was proud I was part of every single one of them and of the rivalries we had.
“But it is a regret that I never had the chance to have this with Ramy, I just feel we could have been part of something that was way more than what we had, it’s just so sad that it could have happened and now it never will.
“Really, I would say that my rivalry with Ramy was the one that people expected to happen, but my rivalries with Nick, Greg and others came before this rivalry with Ramy could grow and that was because unfortunately Ramy was getting injured from time to time.
“But the three of them each taught me something different, they were three different characters, and they all posed their unique challenges.”
Ashour had become the first Egyptian for 47 years to win the sport’s oldest tournament – the British Open – in 2013, which came in the midst of a 49-match unbeaten run as he won nine successive PSA Tour titles and ultimately posted an 8-3 advantage in his encounters with his younger countryman.
Mohamed ElShorbagy (right) takes on Ramy Ashour (left) in the 2014 PSA World Championship final
The duo were to meet in two World Championship finals and both went to five dramatic games, with Ashour prevailing on each occasion. But ElShorbagy was to hand Ashour one of his most painful defeats when he claimed the 2016 British Open final in straight games.
“As I said, Ramy on his day was just the best player I ever had to play against. But over a season, as playing someone on the day is different to across a season, then I can’t say anything as I never had to face Ramy for a whole season.
“That is why that up to today my toughest competitor has been Ali [Farag] as I have competed with him for a whole season and I know how tough that is. But I have faced players who have been better than Ali on the day and I think, on the other hand, some players would find me tougher to play over the season than on the day, if you know what I mean.
“I have been beaten on the day, but I have been hard to beat across a whole season and I never had that chance with Ramy. Whereas with Ali, Nick and Greg, I perhaps played them almost in double figures over a season, while with Ramy the most we played in one season was twice.
“Yet at the same time there was a period when Ramy had not lost for a year and a half so I know how Ramy can be when he plays for a season, but when he did this, I was just 20 years old. But on his day, at his best, I know Ramy was the only player who could beat me even if I was really right on my game that day.
“On my day, Ramy was the only one who would take me out at my absolute best and I’ve always known that. But not every time we went on court did he give me his best or did I give him my best.
“I would say that over my whole career I have produced my best just two or three times. No one can perform his best every time he is on court, but you can find a way to win.”
Turning his attention to the occasion when he played the greatest squash of his life only to lose to Ashour, ElShorbagy admitted that this had not come in their epic 2014 World Open final, which Ashour won 14-12 in an astonishingly tense fifth-game tie-break, but rather a year later.
“The best match I played in my career was the match I played against Ramy in the El Gouna final 2015 and I lost it! Not many players say that their best match was one they lost, but I actually think that was the one. We played two El Gouna finals and it was the second one and ended in a fifth-game tie-break.
“It was so hot that day, so humid, so bouncy and Ramy and I played at such a high tempo for the duration from the first point to the end. The way that we played for the whole match, the length of the match and the drama of it, I just feel it was probably the best match I played in and I was just one point away from wining that match.
“But if I had been one level below, I was losing three zero as Ramy was on it. It was also very tough to take him out in Egypt. But when they presented the trophy, we looked at each other and we agreed this match was better than our World Champs final in 2014, we both agreed it was our best. Bottom line, in terms of quality, the El Gouna final was just a notch up on the World Champs final.
“A lot of people loved the drama of the 2014 world champ final but there was so much tension happening in that match, Ramy was coming back from an injury and he was just so up and down in that match and so was I. For me in terms of quality it was not the same as El Gouna.
“But the drama of going to the tie-break in the fifth, of Ramy coming back after six-months out and it was my first month as World No.1, so there was so much riding on it, and it was just so dramatic but not quite of the level El Gouna was at for the whole match.”
In the final part of PSA website’s exclusive career review with ‘The Beast of Alexandria’, El Shorbagy will reveal why he is so hungry to get back on tour and what his next great target is. Keep an eye out for the article dropping next week.