Dazzling diver Nour El Tayeb finds the right balance and hits top five in the world
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
Nour El Tayeb celebrated her 22nd birthday just a month ago. She couldn’t have asked for a better belated birthday present than when she broke into the top five for the first time in the latest rankings.
She first broke into the top 20 in December 2010 and it wasn’t until about four years later before she made it to the top 10. By Egyptian standards these days, one could say she is a late bloomer.
The Cairo native got her big break in August last year when she reached two consecutive World Series finals as the 16th seed, at the Malaysian and Hong Kong Opens. Since then, she has risen steadily up the rankings up to where she is now.
Like most Egyptian players, she has some very mean shots that often find the nick. But what sets Nour El Tayeb apart is also her ability to hit airborne with her acrobatic dives and lunges, which she reveals she learned from someone we know.
In between watching her fiancé Ali Farag upset the seeds to make the main draw in El Gouna, the friendly three-time World Junior finalist takes time off to give us a peek into her life and thoughts, before she heads to the Texas Open as the top seed.
You’ve hovered around the 20-30 bracket in the rankings since 2012. Then in September 2014, you went from 25 to 8, thanks to two consecutive World Series finals in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. This happened nearly immediately after your engagement to Ali, so do you feel that influenced your sudden rise in the game?
I started college in 2011 and it took me a long time to adapt to the tough schedule of finding a balance between studying full time, training and still have a decent social life. I didn’t do particularly well and both my squash and studies suffered. This affected my confidence level a lot to the extent I was losing interest in my squash.
When Ali came into my life, he made things much simpler and better. He helped me regain my confidence. So yes, since we got engaged and even a little before that, I started to play well again and the additional confidence that came with it helped my game a lot.
I have also been working with my coach, Haitham Effat, and fitness trainer Hossam Shaddad, for a while now and I couldn’t have made it to this level without their constant support and belief in me. They both know me well and we all work well together as a team.
Now that you’ve broken into the top five, what are your goals for the remainder of the year?
My goal is always to improve my strengths and work on my weaknesses on court. I’m thankful I don’t waste a lot of energy thinking about the rankings. But I guess my utmost dream in squash is becoming the best player in the world, or to the best that I can be.
You are well known for those amazing dives and splits you do in court. Are they something you have been doing since young? Is there a story behind it?
Ha! I have been doing these splits and dives since I was young, probably from watching one of my role models, the maestro, Amr Shabana do the dives. However, I’m trying to improve my movement on court and not resort to diving or doing the big splits too much. Maybe just once or twice, as they hurt my knees and might cause injuries in my hamstrings.
You’ve had some massive games with Nour El Sherbini lately. You lost closely in New York but you got her back in Chicago. This great rivalry between the Nours, seems like it’s going to stay for a while, don’t you think so?
We started playing each other since 2009 and our first big match was the World Junior Open final where she won. (In 2011, El Tayeb reversed the result to claim her own World Junior title). Ever since then, it’s been back and forth between us, and I think she leads in the head to head.
She is an amazing player and if we can create a rivalry, then I’d be very lucky and proud of that. We don’t have very similar styles and so we tend to have nice matches because of the contrasting ways we both play.
You two also seem to be very close off court, so how hard is it playing your good friend?
We have been in the same age group since juniors and when we travel, we both share rooms all the time. So we are very good friends. For me, it’s both easy and hard to play against her. When I play against a clean and fair player, it makes my time on court relatively simpler.
On the other hand, it becomes hard when we can’t yell “Come on” to ourselves because of the respect we have for each other. The good thing is though, we got used to playing against each other that we know that when we’re on court, it’s purely business!
In fact, all the Egyptian girls on tour seem to be a very close and happy bunch, judging from the photos on social media. On court, it’s also often that you play one another. Does the friendship between you all help push each other to improve as a player?
I think because there are a lot of us at every tournament, so we tend to get on well with each other and we always train together. We try not take things seriously off court and just enjoy the fact that we travel around the world together doing the thing we love.
Egypt were top seeds in the last Women’s World Team but you lost out in the semi-finals. You practically had a dream team, where all of you were ranked in the top ten. Did this put additional pressure onto the team and did it affect the outcome?
It was definitely tough to lose, but both the teams are just equally as good. Yeah, according to rankings, we are the best team, but it’s really not all about rankings. I believe within the top 20, it’s who is better on the day. In our semi-final match, the Malaysian team were better than us on the day and they truly deserved to win. God willing, we will be back stronger in 2016.
Natalie Grinham (right) recently came back on tour after having her second child. Do you see this, as in mothers coming back to compete after starting families, as a trend moving forward in women’s professional sport?
What Natalie has done, is something I’d consider unbelievable. It actually inspired me to do the same (in future).
It also reminded me that you can have drastic changes in your life or body (like having a baby!) and still return to the top of the rankings.
So when I felt it was hard to train while studying, I actually tell myself “don’t be a baby, Natalie managed a baby while training”.
Ed : Not only does Natalie manages a baby while training, but at times, brings him on tour too, as seen here in Kuala Lumpur.
There is a lot of buzz recently on equal prize money for the ladies. Is that something you look forward to?
It is great that women are beginning to get equal prize money at certain events. We have been working very hard to make our tour better. I believe the merger between PSA and WSA, along with having equal prize money, will help the both men and women’s tour simultaneously.
Who do you look up to for inspiration in life and why?
I don’t have one person to look up to in life. I learn bits and pieces from everyone in every aspect. But if I had to choose, I would pick both my parents and fiancé whom I learn the most from.
Finally, all of us in SquashMad wishes you a happy belated birthday. Now if I was a genie and I could grant you two wishes – one squash related and one non-squash – what would they be?
Thanks for the birthday wish! Now this is easy! My wish for squash is to become the best player in the world and the other, I just wish to live a simple and happy life with my family and friends.
Pictures by MOHD ROSLAN HISAM, NOUR EL TAYEB and NATALIE GRINHAM