Fanatical about football, superstars at squash

SHOROUK, Egypt — Mohamed Abou El Ghar roared triumphantly as his opponent slid across the court, missing the match point shot.

Abou El Ghar was on to the finals.

The Cairo Zone squash tournament, one of the country’s premier junior matchups, was being played in Shorouk, a dusty town on the Saharan plane, about 20 miles east of Cairo.

Just before El Ghar’s match, two 12-year-old girls had squared off in a semifinal, each player looking to the stands after each point, their body language begging for their parents' approval.

And few know better how demanding squash families can be than Egyptian referees.

“Do you want to move closer?” one of the mothers asked the referee, her voice brimming with sarcasm. “You probably can’t see from up there.”

When the match was over, the winner, a little wisp of a girl, fell exhausted into a chair and promptly put on the headphones from her iPod. The loser sobbed, as sympathetic onlookers comforted her.

By age 16, though, breakthrough players like El Ghar have shed any youthful insecurities. They have to be mentally tough if they’re going to join the elite ranks of what is the world’s top squash-playing nation.

Today, on the men’s professional squash circuit, Egyptians hold three of the top-four spots. They hold another nine positions in the top 100. Egyptian women occupy nine of the top 100 spots.

At the men’s U.S. Open in September, it was an all Egypt final.

Egypt’s dominance of the game has developed over the past decade, during which time it has surpassed countries like Britain and Pakistan to rule the sport.

One clue as to how Egypt, a low-income country, has come to dominate one of the world’s most elite sports lies in the early age at which players start and the dedication to the game demanded of them by their parents and coaches.

El Ghar, ranked No. 2 in Egypt’s under-17 circuit, started playing when he was just seven years old. These days, he trains six hours a day. His father, Ashraf, a constant presence at the Cairo club where his son practices, has let him forgo a formal education and squeeze in his studies when he can.

“If he goes [to school fulltime], he will have a good school and a good university,” said Cherine Adel, El Ghar’s former coach and still his mentor. “But he’s going to stop squash.”

Some of the world’s top players have shown that starting play from a young age pays off.

“I started late,” said Hisham Mohd Ashour, ranked among the world's top-30 players. “I started at 11.”

Ashour’s brother, Ramy, is five years Hisham’s junior and started playing the same year. He’s ranked No. 4 in the world.

To Abou El Ghar, the path is clear: play with the juniors until he turns 19 and then join the ranks of the professionals. He won the Egyptian national tournament this year and has already begun dabbling on the professional circuit.

“In the next 5 years,” he said, “I would like to be a world champion, to be one of the top 10.”

The coaching that the juniors undergo is also critical to Egypt’s success in the professionals.

Unlike the situation in the U.S., where the majority of squash is played in a time slot between school and homework, Egyptian coaches make it their job to monitor and mentor their young players at all hours of the day.

“Our way to coach,” said Adel, “you are responsible for the player from A to Z. It means you have to know when he sleeps, what he eats. You coach him in the court. You get someone to play with him. You coach him out of the court. You coach him all the time.”

Egypt’s squash operation is so small, that the top professional players are scattered throughout the country’s handful of clubs. As a result, young players can top off their training by watching players like Ashour preparing for the next tournament.

Perhaps most of all, though, Egypt has championed a style of play that has proved resilient against the traditional strategy of hitting long balls and outlasting opponents through lengthy rallies.

“The Egyptian style,” said Adel, “is you attack the front. We have so many shots. Every time you have to play a new one.”

Ashour agrees, calling the Egyptian game more “clever” than the styles played in other countries.

“We don’t just play the same boring game, hitting the ball up and down the wall,” he said.

El Ghar is now weighing whether to take a scholarship to a top U.S. boarding school. He’d be able to play squash there, but the change would mean backing off from the intensity of the Egyptian training regime.

El Ghar says he’s leaning against heading to the U.S.

When it comes down to earning a top-notch secondary school education and a shot at playing squash in the Ivy League versus the chance to be the top squash player in the world, the choice for El Ghar seems clear enough.