Mohamed El Shorbagy is squash’s new world number one. The World Championships in Doha starting on Friday will be the 23-year-old Egyptian’s first tournament as the world’s best.
El Shorbagy shares his thoughts with Al Jazeera on what it’s like to be on top of the world, his journey there and how he balances life between the squash court and a classroom.
AJ: You are now the world’s top-ranked player. Is the journey complete?
El Shorbagy: As an athlete, you want to win everything, you never want to lose. Being world number one was one of the big goals for me. Some players think after getting here, you have reached the end of the ladder. For me, it’s just the first step. I want to stay here as long as I can and will work even harder to achieve that.
Earlier, I was the hunter. Now I wake up being the hunted. It’s like that.
|El Shorbagy stats|
World Ranking: 1
Career wins: 179
Career losses: 71
AJ: So where do you want to see yourself before you retire?
El Shorbagy: I would love to win World Championships, British Opens. I already have the Hong Kong title, Qatar Classic and the US Open in my bag. But I want to win more. I want to win for as long as I can. I’m hungry for more and winning makes me hungrier. I’ll hopefully stay focussed and not going to let other players stop me from winning.
AJ: So how did it all start for you then, you getting into squash?
El Shorbagy: My uncle played squash as an amateur. I used to be a swimmer but one day I went to the courts with him. My mother wanted me to concentrate on swimming, saying it was the right thing to do. Until I won my first squash nationals aged just 10 [an under-11 tournament]. That’s when she realised I can play squash and go forward. That’s when it all started for me.
AJ: You’re quite keen on studying as well, having done a bachelor’s degree and now pursuing a master’s course. How does that work with the time needed for training and participating in tournaments?
El Shorbagy: This master’s course is part-time so it gives me time to balance things. I’ve always felt, even during my bachelor’s degree, that I needed something different. It helps me with squash as well. If I play all the time, I’ll go mentally crazy with the travelling and everything. I need something different in my life and studying has given me that, making me the player I am today.
AJ: So do you go crazy at times with so much happening?
El Shorbagy: I go crazy all the time! People see the squash player who I am on the court. They don’t see what happens off it. There’s so much going on. The amount of pressure, especially. We try and leave it all behind when we go on court so we can just focus on the next shot.
For example, when I was playing Gaultier in the semi-finals of the US Open, I need to win that match to become world number one. I woke up that that morning and I was shaking. People don’t see that. I went onto the court that evening and I had to leave all that behind. There are times when you go into depression thinking about the times you’ve lost. And that’s what we got to go through and still turn up at their best.
AJ: One type of pressure you won’t be facing any time soon is playing in the Olympics. You think squash should be there and has a chance to be there?
El Shorbagy: Anyone who knows the sport knows squash should be there. We still have a big chance of making it to the 2020 Olympics. There’s a meeting in December with the IOC and I know that the new president wants new sports. Good thing for me is that I’ll be 29 then. That’s the age that squash players normally peak at. I’m 23 right now and all my opponents are in their 30s. Age is on my side. Other have peaked. I’m number one and yet to peak. My best is still to come.
AJ: There has also been a development that the men’s and women’s squash federations have merged. Is that good for the sport?
El Shorbagy: I believe in equal prize-money in all world series tournaments but I don’t agree with the merger. I believe there should be separate bodies with one that controls both. I believe that women’s tour needs to get stronger by themselves. But it’s something new, let’s see. Maybe it’ll work better for the sport. If it gets us into the Olympics then I believe the PSA has done the right thing.
AJ: Are you satisfied with the prize-money that squash has to offer? It’s quite low compared to other individual sports out there.
El Shorbagy: It definitely needs a re-visit. The sport is doing much better than it was few years ago and the prize-money has increased. But I think it needs to be higher. The amount of physicality in this sport and the amount of injuries we get, it needs to increase. Players can be out for months. But the PSA is working hard towards this and doing a great job.
AJ: Finally, Egypt is dominating the squash world. They have seven players in the top-17. Was the sport affected due to the revolution in Egypt and perhaps stopped more players from coming forward?
El Shorbagy: I don’t think individual sport suffered with the revolution in Egypt. But team sports, like football, did. For us, we can train anytime we want and need to. It did affect us little bit maybe financially but didn’t stop us from training or going to tournaments. And I firmly believe, just like other countries in the past, this is Egypt’s time to shine on the squash court.