Friday, January 27, 2023

Ali Farag on 2022: “Elation and frustration… and I’ve still not played my best squash’

In part two of his end-of-year exclusive with Squash Mad, world champion Ali Farag looks back on his 2022 highlights and tells us of his satisfaction at finishing year-end world no.1 for a fourth time.

Worryingly for his PSA World Tour rivals in the year he became a three-time world champion, Farag has reaffirmed the belief of his coaching camp that he has yet to play his best squash. 

But frustratingly, the great Egyptian has ended the year wrapped in cotton wool after a worrying knee injury caused Farag to scratch in the final of the US Open on October 16 while in an ill-fated comeback at the Grasshopper Cup he fell to Nicolas Mueller in three agonising games after playing on one leg. 

As the 30-year-old exclusively revealed last week on Squash Mad, his wounded knee has now been confirmed as a condition called Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. After aborting planned comebacks at the Singapore and Hong Kong Opens, he has now entered January’s Houston Open after rehabilitation on the knee and retraining his body in areas that have proven vulnerable to the condition. 

Before this recent frustration, there were huge highlights for Farag this year – with one seminal moment in particular. 

Ali reflected: “I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario than to win the World Championships for the third time on home soil in front of all my friends and family, coaches and sponsors. 

“I have been extremely blessed to win three and each one of them has been special for a particular reason but this one, as it was in Egypt, has definitely been the highlight of 2022 for me. 

“It meant so much because I had to beat Mohamed [ElShorbagy] in the final to win it. As great as all the other players are from Greg [Gaultier] to Tarek [Momen] to Paul [Coll] and [Mostafa] Asal, I have to say that Mohamed has been my biggest and toughest competitor and the one who has given me the greatest rivalry of my playing career. 

“So to beat him in the final of the world champs after being 2-1 down and on the verge of defeat it made it even sweeter. Of course there were other good moments for me but to come through a five game semi-final with Mostafa and then turn things around against Mohamed in the final was definitely the highlight.” 

FINISHING THE YEAR AS WORLD NO.1

Despite playing just 14 tournaments, one less than world no.2 Paul Coll and world no.3 Mohamed ElShorbagy, Farag has ended the calendar year almost 1500 ranking points ahead of his nearest rival. 

En route to a fourth year-end world no.1 ranking, Farag started the year with victory at the Gold level Houston Open, then the inaugural Optasia Championships in Wimbledon, followed by his second JP Morgan Tournament of Champions title. He then made it a hat-trick of PSA World Championships with that unforgettable victory over ElShorbagy in Cairo which took him back to the world no.1 ranking in June. 

September saw the mild-mannered Egyptian start his 2022/2023 campaign with a four-game victory over Paul Coll in the final of the CIB Egyptian Open which seemed to confirm the pendulum of power had once again swung Farag’s way in the duo’s battle for global squash supremacy. 

Sadly after just two points of his US Open final with Diego Elias, Farag was forced to scratch with the knee injury which has since sidelined him. 

No wonder then that Farag has taken extra satisfaction from retaining the summit of the squash rankings at the most treasured moment of the year: “2019, 2020, 2021 so this will be my fourth time [as year-end world no.1]. 

“That is brilliant and of course it is also a nice feeling because it reflects what you have done over the whole year. There have been some great times in 2022 as well as some that were not what I had hoped for. 

“That is the same for every sportsman but it is always nice to finish the year at no.1 and I guess doing it for a fourth time does show some consistency. 

“But to be honest I am not thinking rankings going forward, it is really up to the other guys right now, as I am not there to compete. For me it is more about staying healthy and getting back to competition. 

“You might be thinking about the rankings when it is under your control but that is not the case going forward and there are so many guys playing very well like Mohamed, Diego (Elias), Paul and Mostafa and it is up to them right now. 

“Basically my target is just to be back on court in 2023 and if I can achieve that then I will be happy and we will just see where it takes us.” 

‘I’VE STILL NOT PLAYED MY BEST SQUASH’

Despite being struck down by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune just when it seemed he was set to tighten the tourniquet on his rivals, Farag and his team believe his best is yet to come. 

“If I didn’t think so I would quit right away!” he joked. “As much as I enjoy competing with the big guns and playing on the biggest stages, the one thing that you wake up each day to aspire to do is to improve. 

“You do that as a squash player and as a person and Mike Way [his coach] keeps talking about the ‘next level.’ He says: ‘Ali you have never played your best squash for a whole match before,’ and I don’t always enjoy hearing that! 

Ali Farag and coach Karim Darwish after the World Championship final

“Karim Darwish [head coach] is the same in that he feels I have not played the complete match and so do the other people around me. 

“So this is what I train for every day and one day I hope to achieve that. There have been times in some matches where I have felt that I have been very close to it but only for certain parts of a match and never for all of one. 

“So this is something that will continue to motivate me when I am trying to get back, the knowledge that I have not played my best game yet and that is something I am determined to achieve.” 

All at Squash Mad wish Ali a speedy recovery from his injury.  

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