By RJ Mitchell
Karim Darwish believes that this week’s El Gouna International Open can provide the winner with a potentially pivotal platform to glory later this summer when squash’s major titles will be decided.
The former World No.1 was the first ever winner of the El Gouna title during its inaugural year back in 2010 when he overcame compatriot Ramy Ashour.
Now in his role as coach to current World No.1 Ali Farag, who will be absent due to family commitments, Darwish will be casting his expert eye over the performances of his charge’s main rivals as he assesses every technical improvement and tactical adjustment to their games.
But of one thing Darwish is in no doubt and that is that whoever prevails at El Gouna will go into the final stretch of the season, which features the CIB World Tour Finals, PSA World Championships and British Open, with a mountain of self-belief that could provide the difference between triumph and despair in the defining moments of the current campaign.
Darwish said: “I am proud to have won the very first El Gouna event in 2010, when I beat Ramy in the final. I was 2-0 up when he pulled out and although that was a bit disappointing of course you take the win, and it really means something to me to have been the first winner of El Gouna.
“Winning a major tournament like Gouna is really important and the fact that it is on Egyptian TV every day makes it very important for the Egyptian players.
“But it will be interesting to see who will win it as Ali will not be there and all the other guys are very close to each other, so it is tough to call the winner but the one thing I can say is that winning a major event like El Gouna gives you a huge boost with confidence.
“It also gives you momentum for the rest of the season and with the biggest three championships still to come there is no doubt that whoever wins Gouna will be going into them full of self-belief and confidence.”
Turning his attention to the absence of his protégé Farag, Darwish is adamant that his man has not been scarred by his back-to-back losses at the hands of fellow Egyptian Fares Dessouky, the second of which saw Farag squander matchballs, in the most recent edition of the Black Ball Open.
The 2008 World Championship runner-up said: “It’s normal in elite level professional sport that with players very close to each other in terms of ability you get these results.
“Fares was playing really good for the last couple of months and Ali played well to get himself into a winning position and earn his match balls but all credit to Fares, he came back very strongly. For sure Ali was disappointed for a couple of days after the loss but then he moved on and that is what you have to do at the top level.
“That is the professional life, sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down, and you have to take these losses and then make sure you come back stronger for the experience.
“Really in the top five or six, the only difference is mental and who is ready and at his best on the day will win. Ali is working very hard on his mental strength and especially so over the last few months.”
The Egyptian super-coach is also adamant that Farag’s absence from El Gouna will not impact in the major moments later this season: “Unfortunately, Ali has a family commitment that means he will not be playing El Gouna, and he is from a very close family and they come first, and he must be respected for that.
“So, we plan for Ali to come back at Manchester, but the biggest tournaments are still to come like the World Tour Finals, the Worlds and the British Open and these are the most important tournaments.
“Even although Ali is not playing Gouna he is training very hard and I am on court with him two or three times a week, so he is hungry and up to it and I am optimistic that he can do really well at these major tournaments.”
“But all three events are very important for Ali and we will be making sure he peaks for them.”
But for those present next week El Gouna is shaping up to be a key part of their campaigns for a variety of reasons.
Mohamed ElShorbagy is top seed at El Gouna and will be desperate to put a disappointing loss in the quarter-finals of the Black Ball at the hands of Joel Makin behind him and Darwish said: “At Black Ball Mohamed was a bit out of form as he had not played competitively for four or five months and I think that had an impact.
“But Mohamed gives 100% for every match whether he loses or not and I am sure he will be very focussed for El Gouna and determined to win a title in Egypt, yet there are four or five other guys who are really hungry and ready for El Gouna.”
When it comes to those that can be considered the four-times World No.1’s greatest threats, Darwish believes brotherly love may be in short supply in the land of the Pyramids next week: “I am sure the competition will be very fierce at El Gouna and you must look at Marwan [ElShorbagy], Fares [Dessouky], Paul Coll and of course Tarek [Momen].
“Mentally, I feel Marwan has in particular improved a great deal and he is very smart on court. What he is very good at is adapting his game to his opponent really well. Marwan doesn’t have just one plan, he has an A, B, C and maybe even a D plan.
“But as he has become more experienced, he has also matured on court and that is why I think he is on top of his form and will be a real danger at El Gouna.”
It is also not surprising that with back—to-back wins over Ali Farag, that Darwish admits his star pupil’s conqueror will also be a live and present danger on Egyptian soil: “As I said whoever is ready mentally has the edge but there is no doubt that Fares Dessouky has everything. He is very talented; he hits the ball very cleanly and moves really well and the only thing he didn’t have was the mental strength and he has worked very hard to develop that side of his game.
“Now he has started to believe in himself and that he can beat the top guys and he has shown that in both of the last two tournaments which means Fares is a threat to all the top guys.”