Thursday, April 18, 2024

British Open Squash 2023: Ali Farag aiming for fourth time lucky

It is the one major title that has eluded him. But, days before he begins his quest to finally capture the British Open, Ali Farag has dismissed any suggestions he is once again a contender for the ‘Wimbledon of Squash’.

Farag, the man Jonah Barrington refers to as ‘nature’s gentleman’, has been runner-up in the last three British finals and last Autumn had been hitting the type of form that made it look like 2023 would finally be his year.

It was then that disaster in the shape of Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome affecting his right knee struck and there followed a four-month injury hiatus that has left the world champion admitting he was in a “really bad place.”

But showing an iron resolve and an almost manic commitment to the rehab programme needed to rebuild his wounded knee, the three-time global ruler has quietly been building momentum.

Now ironically with injury afflicting the resurgent Mohamed El Shorbagy, World No.2 Diego Elias and World No.1 Mostafa Asal banned, only defending British Open champion Paul Coll of the elite top 5 group is in vibrant form.

So could it just be Farag is timing his date with destiny at the game’s most historic title perfectly?

Speaking to Squash Mad, the three-time world champion applied the straight-bat to that notion and said: “I am not talking about winning the British Open at all, I am just talking about being better than the tournament before, my head to be quieter than the tournament before and if I achieve that even if I lose I am a happy man!

World champions Ali Farag and Nour El Sherbini

“If you had seen the state of my knee in November I was in a really bad place. So just to be back again competing with these top guys and pushing them to four and five games and even to beat them sometimes leaves me very happy at the moment.

“In my situation I am facing a different challenge every time I am on court and I have a tough draw with possibly (Omar) Mossad (a former World No.3) in my first match if he comes through and psychologically that is a tough one for me as he knows how to win.

“In terms of my knee it is a fact that I have lost a lot of muscle mass because I have missed two months but it is exciting, I have started at a low level with a lot of room for improvement and I am happy with my progress.

“Even now you can tell when you see my knee that it is smaller than my left one but I have had three brilliant physios working with me in Derek Ryan of the PSA and two Egyptian physios and I am on a very good track.”

As candid as always Farag readily admits that he is refusing to put a timeline on his return to premium form after earlier finding that to generate an adverse pressure: “I no longer worry about timelines as with injuries like Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome, it is a common injury but it is impossible to put times scales on it,” said the World No.5.

He continued: “Instead I am looking at my progress from match to match and tournament to tournament. The Black Ball (lost ElShorbagy Q-F) was very positive for me, Canary Wharf (lost S-F Coll) was even better and the Paul Coll match was the best I have played yet, while obviously to beat Mohamed in the round before was great even if he was not 100% but then the Optasia (lost Hesham Q-F) was disappointing.

“But I can not blame it on my leg, I came up against a very strong Mazen (Hesham) and a Gregoire Marche was in fine form in the first match.

“But at the Optasia I think I could have been better in the head and that is down to my lack of matches.”

Reflecting on the challenges he has faced during his comeback, Farag admits that the metal issues in terms of rebuilding confidence and belief in his wounded knee are now his main issues. He said: “When you have not played for a long time then the voice in your head is loud, loud about where you plant your leg, loud about what first step you take, is it with the right leg or the left leg?

“Now there are two things that are progressing very well, the first is my leg is getting stronger all the time and that is quieting the noise in my head and secondly I am learning to deal with this noise in my head.

“I have been one of those players who has always relied on his movement and if you take that away from me you have taken a big strength from me and until I regain my ‘super-strength’ I have to find other strategies.

“But I have faith in the people around me and my work ethic and the process.”

Delving deeper into his journey back to the summit of our game, Farag continued: “(At Black Ball) I knew Mohamed would come at me with a high pace and fast boasts and that I needed to hit better length to stop the source and credit to Mohamed he did not give me the chance to do that.

“In a normal situation I would find a better way quicker into the match but at Canary Wharf I was a lot better regarding all of that then at Optasia one step back in that regard.

“Maybe I put more pressure on myself at Optasia because of Canary Wharf but that is itself part of the process.

“The key is not to be too harsh on myself and Nour keeps telling me to be more accepting of it and of course she is right.”

Farag will begin the defence of his Egyptian National championship on Friday seeded No.2 behind Asal over whom a question mark still hangs regarding his entry.

Yet for the world champion this represents another important stepping stone back to his promised land. Farag said: “I always take the Nationals very seriously and it is a great test for me against the top guys. As defending champion I really want to defend my title.

“I am seeded No.2 and Mostafa is seeded No.1, with Tarek (Momen) and Marwan (El Shorbagy) at No.3 and No.4 and so it will be tough.

“But I have put in some hard sessions with (Karim) Darwish and then in the gym and I had a good practice match with Tarek last night and the knee is good and it’s not clicking like it was a few months ago.”

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