‘Having my family at courtside for my second world title in Chicago was so special’
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
Ali Farag has his sights set on a first Canary Wharf title next week. And he is also determined to erase the memories of a rare straight-games defeat to “an immaculate Joel Makin” in the recent U.S. Open.
Ali enters the second round on Monday night against the winner of Sunday’s first round tie between Spain’s Iker Pajares and 2016 Canary Wharf champion Mathieu Castagnet from France.
Deep down he will also be keen to go one better than last year, when he lost to Mohamed ElShorbagy in a phenomenal Canary Wharf final that turned out to be the last men’s match before lockdown brought the PSA World Tour to a halt.
In the interview below, the Harvard-educated Farag talks about the lessons he learned from that match and the debt of gratitude the current generation of players owes to Mohamed ElShorbagy.
An intelligent and articulate champion, Farag also reveals the extraordinary gesture made by his wife, Nour El Tayeb, to give birth to their first child in Chicago instead of Cairo so that Ali would not miss the World Championships in July.
11 POINTS WITH ALI FARAG:
INTERVIEW BY ALAN THATCHER
1: Ali, it’s wonderful to welcome you back to Canary Wharf as world number one, world champion and top seed! I’m guessing you must literally be feeling on top of the world right now?
A: Yes, obviously I do feel on top of the world! I couldn’t feel any happier. Growing up I always dreamt of achieving those milestones but I never really thought that I was going to achieve them. So the fact that I’m here now I never take it for granted one bit. I thank God for it every single day and I work even harder to try and an protect them as much as possible.
2: What an amazing experience, winning the World Championship in Chicago in July and having your wife Nour and baby Farida at courtside to watch.
A: Our baby was born 11 days prior to the final day, literally three days prior to the start of the tournament. I never really thought I would be able to win the tournament just because of the distractions and everything. But I guess it gave me that happy vibe that if you are happy on court then that translates into your squash and I just ended up playing really well. So to share it with them, as well as my parents and Nour’s parents, and my coach and my second father as I like to call him, Mike Way, all being there and celebrating it together I can’t put it into words really.
3: Who made more noise: Farida or the crowd?
A: That’s a funny question because Farida wasn’t really watching from the audience, because she would have made a lot more noise than the crowd, even during the rallies! So she had to come down after the match was over but yes, obviously it was such a fun moment to be all together.
4: You mentioned in an interview that normally a first world title would feel more special but this occasion was more significant for you because you were surrounded by all the people who are important in your life, including your Harvard coach, Mike Way. Please tell us how that felt.
A: The first World Championship was more of a relief because it was a milestone that you want to achieve. So having achieved it you feel there isn’t anything you need any more; everything is going to be a plus from now on. This second one felt a lot more special just because I had everyone that means a lot to me around me. Obviously I was missing my older brother (Wael), plus Karim Darwish, my mentor and my coach, and my fitness trainer, but then all the other people were around me and I was able to celebrate it with them. Yes, it did feel a lot more special than the first one.
5: Chicago is obviously a very special place for you, winning your first world title there in 2019, the Windy City Open in 2020 and a second world title in 2021. You chose to have your baby born there as well. How did that come about?
A: Well, giving birth in Chicago is just a testament to how good and supportive of a wife and mother my wife Nour El Tayeb is. I am sure no other wife would do that for you! She knew that the due date could fall into the dates of the World Champs and she said ‘I don’t want you to miss another World Champs’ because I had to miss the previous one because of a family incident that happened in 2019. So she said ‘OK, I’m gonna sacrifice and I’m gonna go over there a month earlier’ because she’s not going to be fit to fly in the ninth month of pregnancy.
So she flew over a month and a half earlier with my mum, which is a testament again to how supportive my mum is. I had to be in Egypt to play the World Tour finals and then the following day I flew over to Chicago to be with them. I had a good training block of two weeks over there with Mike Way and a bunch of other players that came early. And, yeah, it just happened!
Like you said, apart from Cairo it has definitely surpassed Boston as the favourite city in the world for me. I won two of my World Championships there and more importantly my first child was born there, so I couldn’t really hold any more of a special place in my heart forever for Chicago.
Action from last year’s final and semi-final at Canary Wharf as Ali faced brothers Mohamed and Marwan ElShorbagy
6: Lockdown obviously gave you the unexpected bonus of spending more time at home with Nour and planning your future. That must have been a special bonus.
A: Well, believe it or not, the lockdown was a very beneficial moment for us. It gives you perspective and it makes you sit and reflect on where you are in your career, where you are in life in general, what you want to do, and it was a very thoughtful time. It was very mind-opening, if that’s the word.
Obviously, it was tough not to be able to train or do the things you love, or even earn a living. But spending more time with the family is always a bonus. It was such a good time in our lives and it made me appreciate what I do even more because I was missing it.
I want to acknowledge the fact that people lost their lives and the lives of their loved ones, but there were a lot of positives in that time for me.
7: Egypt was at the forefront of staging tournaments to help the PSA World Tour to relaunch after lockdown. How was your own transition from lockdown to tournament play? Did the break help you to try out new things?
A: Yes, the lockdown did help me reflect on how I play, how I need to improve, and it gave me some time to think about how I could play better. But at the beginning the transition to playing again was tough. It was very lonely to be at a tournament, within the bubble and staying in a single room. Even though Nour was there in the same tournament I couldn’t see her.
It was tough playing without a crowd, which is the main pillar of any sport, but especially squash. We enjoy being able to feed off the crowd and it was very lonely to start work, to be honest. I struggled with that and it was a little depressing, but then thankfully things changed.
Thanks go to the PSA and CIB, and all the sponsors that put in money at the beginning to make the transition as smooth as possible, to be able to play at all and then in front of the crowd again. So yes, it was tough at the beginning but it was definitely good to be back
8: You followed your win over Mohamed ElShorbagy in the World Championship final by beating him at the Pyramids in the final of the Egyptian Open. Again, winning another major title at the world’s most iconic squash location, in front of a home crowd, must have felt pretty incredible.
A: Well, Mohamed and I talk about it in private all the time and we talk about it in public a lot as well. The two of us have had a rivalry now for the past five years or so, and I think we owe it to each other to play on every big stage. The two biggest stages that were missing were the final of the World Championships and the final of the Pyramids, and to be able to play there against each other back to back, it was a great feeling for both of us.
Obviously I was the lucky one to come out on top in both but then if you look at our head to head record he’s won more than I have. He’s been playing for longer than I have and he’s paved the way for all of our generation to be where we are today.
So again, every time I step on court with him it’s a pleasure and it’s an honour. I learn something every single time. Winning such big events is an incredible feeling and to be able to win anything in front of my home crowd as well is amazing.
9: Let’s turn the clock back to last year’s final at Canary Wharf just before lockdown. You and Mohamed certainly delivered an epic battle for the fans, a real match to remember. I know you and Mohamed had some fun doing your own voice-over commentary a few months ago. What did you learn from that defeat?
A: Honestly, I think this is one of the highest quality matches that Mohamed and I have played against each other. There was a statement from both of us. I hadn’t been playing well before then because of the family incident I had and then I came back at the Windy City Open and I won it and I had some momentum.
Mohamed had just regained his world number one spot and he wanted to cement that in terms of playing levels, not only in terms of points, and he wanted to beat me. I wanted to start playing well again and try to hunt back the number one spot, so both of us gave it our all and I think that was reflected in the level of the squash.
What did I learn? I did learn a lot of things because I think I was not sharp enough in the critical points. Look at the last point of the first game and the last point of the last game: both were tins from myself and this is something I shouldn’t be doing at this level of squash.
But again, I learned a lot, and a lot of positives as well. But then again it’s Mohamed that puts you under this stress that brings the errors out of your racket and brings a lot of headaches because of how tough he makes it for you. I was disappointed at the time but looking back at it now I’m very proud to have been part of such a match.
10: Canary Wharf fans will enjoy their first view of Mostafa Asal next week. He demonstrated his quality by winning the US Open and clearly has his sights set on the top. He is certainly generating some publicity for the sport but what are the qualities in his game that fans possibly don’t appreciate?
A: There’s a lot of things to be appreciated, one of which is his fearlessness and how he doesn’t care who he plays. He is just there to win. I like that and I like his style of play. He’s very explosive, and he has trimmed down his weight big time to be able to maintain that physicality for five full games and one match after the other, back-to-back. There is a lot of things to admire, and especially his determination.
His celebrations have attracted attention and are totally against what I would do after the matches, but it’s something that if he enjoys it then let him do it. Maybe sometimes people don’t appreciate that he wants to win so bad that he might exceed the line a little bit. But then this is not something for me to comment on.
I have a very honest relationship with him. I talk with him about what I think he can do better, and he tells me about the things I can do better.
11: Finally, let’s talk about the phenomenal quality of this year’s Canary Wharf draw. The fans are looking forward to an entertaining week. What are your thoughts coming into the tournament?
A: Well, I did a very silly mistake of forgetting to put my name in for Qatar so I haven’t had a tournament since the U.S. Open. I’ve had a good block of training so I’m really looking forward to getting going again, especially at Canary Wharf which is always a special tournament with packed out crowds from the very first round.
I’m also looking forward to being back, especially because in my last match I lost three love to an immaculate Joel Makin in Philadelphia. I hadn’t lost in three in almost two years so this is something that I want to do better and try to avoid happening again.
As you said it’s a full house draw aside from maybe Shorbagy, and then unfortunately now a couple of players pulling out. But I’m really looking forward to getting going and trying to put into action what I’ve been training on in the past month or so.
I’m really looking forward to it. Obviously I’m looking forward to meeting the crowd again and seeing you and Tim, so I’m really excited to be back.
Thank you, Ali, for some insightful responses as always. Good luck at Canary Wharf next week.
Pictures courtesy of Steve Line, Nathan Clarke, Patrick Lauson and PSA World Tour