No matter where he goes in the world, Ali Farag, without exception, gets asked the same question.
“I never give a satisfying answer,” he told New Frame from his home in Cairo, Egypt. “I always say, ‘It’s multifaceted,’ or, ‘It’s complicated.’ But that never sits well. The truth is, I don’t know why Egypt dominates the world of squash.”
By an almost divine right, Egyptian men and women are the undisputed rulers of their sport. All four of the top-ranking men and women squash players in the world are Egyptian, with a further 10 rounding out the top 20s in both genders.
With a few possible exceptions – the United States in swimming, the United Kingdom in cycling and Kenya in long-distance running – no other nation can boast of such superiority.
In October, Nour El Sherbini won her second consecutive World Championship, beating compatriot Raneem El Welily in the final, which means an Egyptian woman has lifted the title in each of the last five years.
On 15 November, Tarek Momen swept aside New Zealand’s Paul Coll in straight games to lift the men’s World Championship trophy in Doha. It was the sixth time in eight years that an Egyptian was crowned best in the world.
“Even we can’t really believe it,” said Farag, who is the No. 1 ranked player in the world, according to the Professional Squash Association (PSA). “We try not to think too much about it and rather focus on our own game. But it is interesting and it’s sort of always at the back of your mind.”
How Egypt became rulers of squash
This dominance does not echo throughout history. The World Championship launched in 1976 but it would take 23 years before an Egyptian man – Ahmed Barada – reached the final. The 1999 event was hosted in Cairo in the shadows of the Great Pyramids of Giza and, with the enthusiastic backing of former president Hosni Mubarak, Barada enjoyed zealous support from a partisan home crowd.
Though he lost in the final to Scotland’s Peter Nicol, Barada’s charisma and dynamic, attacking style, which represented a departure from the more conventional approach of wearing one’s opponent down through a series of rallies, planted a seed for a new generation of players. Farag, who was seven at the time, was captivated.
“He was the first guy who made people think, we can do this,” Farag explained. “He was aggressive, he was handsome, he commanded attention. Every young Egyptian who played squash in the early 2000s pretended to be Barada.”
Young female players were also captivated. Welily, the No. 1 ranked women’s player in the world, was nine when Barada shone under lights in front of the pyramids.
“It’s hard to explain what that image did for our sport,” said El Welily. “Imagine a French athlete competing for a world title in front of the Eiffel Tower or an American doing the same in front of the Statue of Liberty. Squash and Egyptian heritage became interconnected. As a young player, I associated what I was doing with pride in my flag and where I came from. The symbolism impacted all of us who had ambition.”
With this enthusiasm injected into their sport, young Egyptians assembled for training with a clear image of what success and representation looked like. Aiding in their development was the close contact with other like-minded prospects.
Egypt has a comparatively small talent pool of roughly 10 000 players, who share 400 courts across the country. By contrast, the US has roughly 1.7 million registered squash players exchanging blows on more than 3 500 courts, according to national body US Squash. But Egypt has an advantage. All those courts are confined to just two cities – Cairo and Alexandria – which are a mere three-hour drive apart.
The making of a sporting dynasty
“Where I train, I can close my eyes and point in any direction and there’s a good chance I’ll be pointing at one of the best players in the world,” Farag said. “I can test myself against the best and play for two weeks without playing the same player. It’s a competitive environment. We want to beat each other. Sometimes the competition in training is more intense than in tournaments.”
El Welily agreed: “Nothing surprises you when you enter a competition. You’ve seen it all at training. Some of the best squash matches in history have occurred with five people watching in a club in Cairo.”
These clubs, almost exclusively private, are mostly occupied by a particular subsection of Egyptian society. Membership is beyond the means of average citizens, as are modern rackets and shoes, not to mention the fees paid to private coaches or the petrol needed to ferry players between competitions. Adding to the sense of exclusivity is that the sport is seldom broadcast on free-to-air television.
This is why the sport, despite the glut of trophies and world champions, has failed to capture the imagination of Egyptian society at large. Football is the people’s game and Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah is treated as a deity, with his face plastered all over Cairo.
“We acknowledge that squash is seen as elitist,” said Farag, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Harvard University in the US in 2014. In February 2019, three Egyptians – two men and one woman – were selected as part of the Ivy League’s first team among an elite group of university players. The squash court is a well-paved avenue for young Egyptians with aspirations of attending prestigious universities in the US and Europe.
“I hate to say it,” Farag told The New York Times, “but we live in two different worlds.”
Paying women more than men
This separation has allowed female players to forge an identity of their own and has yielded some positive, progressive consequences. Egypt is largely a religiously conservative Muslim country but on the squash court, women have carved out a secular niche for themselves.
“I wear a skirt when I play, I don’t wear a hijab and I feel free on the court,” said world No. 3 Nour El Tayeb. “I know I speak for a few of the female players when I say we’re proud of the way we challenge stereotypes. I am conscious that when I travel the world, I am not only representing my country but also my religion. It is something I think about. There is a perception that people have when it comes to our community. We challenge that in our own way.”
By winning the World Championship in Cairo, El Sherbini won $48 640 (about R700 000). Her male counterpart, Momen, took home $45 600 (about R650 000). This is not necessarily a harbinger of things to come as squash events are bankrolled by private investors and fluctuations in the future are likely. However, it is telling that squash was breaking boundaries in the same year that the World Cup-winning US women’s national football team filed a gender discrimination law suit against US Soccer over unequal pay.
“I’m proud to be part of such a sport,” said El Welily. El Tayeb was equally encouraged and said, “For once, we have the bragging rights.”
If El Tayeb, who was knocked out of the quarterfinals at the World Championships by El Welily, feels like bragging, she can find an outlet at home.
El Tayeb is married to Farag and at the 2017 US Open they became the first married couple in any sport to win equivalent major titles on the same day, when they triumphed within hours of each other. And they’re not the only power couple in Egyptian squash because El Welily is married to Momen.
“It adds a unique variable to our sport and to our country,” Farag said. “It’s just another reason why we stand out.”
It’s also the way Egyptians play the game that sets them apart. Like Barada before them, contemporary Egyptian players are renowned for their aggressive approach. Most players seek to meet the ball on the full rather than let it bounce off the back wall and there is a greater proliferation of drop shots and cross-court winners.
“We press for any advantage,” El Tayeb explained. “We’ve been labelled as uncoachable, unpredictable and erratic, but the results are clear. You’re never safe on the court with us. We can score from anywhere.”
Unfortunately for squash fans and players, the sport’s fight for Olympic recognition continues. While breakdancing, skateboarding, surfing and rock climbing will all debut at Tokyo 2022, squash, a sport that dates back to 1830 and has anointed world champions from Australia, Pakistan, Canada and Malaysia, to name but a few nations, must again watch on from the sidelines.
Like long-distance running provides elite athletes from Kenya and Eritrea the chance to bring Olympic glory to their nation, the inclusion of squash at the Summer Games would catapult the standing of Egyptian players and the country they represent.
Egypt has competed in all but two Games – Los Angeles in 1932 and Moscow in 1980 – but has only won seven gold medals, the last coming in Athens in 2004 courtesy of wrestler Karam Gaber in the 96kg Greco-Roman event.
“Of course it would be wonderful to win a gold medal, but that is not why we do what we do,” Farag said. “If they scrapped the rankings, if national acclaim was suddenly stripped from the sport, we’d still be here, training every day and pushing each other to be better than we were yesterday. Squash is more than the accolades. We live for it.”