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Fanatical about football, superstars at squash

Egyptians hold three of the top-four spots on the men’s professional squash circuit. Who knew?

“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.