Ashraf Hanafi: ‘It’s all about attention to detail and making small changes’
By ROSANNA RADLINSKA-TYMA – Squash Mad Correspondent
Everyone in squash knows that Egypt is creating the most incredible dynasty in the history of the game. And one of the main clubs in the country, the Black Ball Sporting Club in Cairo, is busy imprinting its own powerful place in this incredible story.
Not only is the club hosting some of the world’s biggest tournaments, having brought in a major sponsor to facilitate this process, it is also a breeding ground for future champions, many joining the programme as young as four and five years old.
With an eye fixed firmly on the future, the club is also planning a second facility as its reputation for staging tournaments and a top-quality academy is making it a vital destination for players and federations from across the world, who are flocking to Cairo to learn the secrets of Egypt’s success and training in an environment where social and sporting venues are allowed to remain open under sanitary conditions.
Squash Mad correspondent Rosanna Radlinska-Tyma travelled to Cairo last month to watch the men’s and women’s events live at the Black Ball Squash Open 2021 (from March 12-25). In an interview with Squash Mad editor Alan Thatcher in 2019, the club’s director of squash, Ashraf Hanafi, said his ambition was to make the Black Ball Club the biggest and best squash club in the world. In this interview, Rosanna asks him how the delivery of that vision is coming along …
Egypt is currently the centre of squash in the world, not only because of the number of the best players living in this country, but also because of the lack of lockdown.
Businesses continue to operate in a sanitary regime. The restaurants, hotels, cafes, pubs, bars, shops are all open. That is the reason why foreign players are flocking to Cairo.
The 2021 Black Ball Squash Open in March was the first PSA platinum event to take place this year, so this was a good opportunity to talk to Ashraf Hanafi and catch up with news since the 11 points with Alan was published in October 2019.
In the remote working area at the Black Ball Sporting Club, it was possible to work in the morning and to watch the best players in the world in action in the afternoon and evening.
October 2019: We want to be the biggest squash club in the world
Mohamed Ashraf Hanafi Mohamed is the director of squash at Black Ball Sporting Club, which opened in November 2018. This spectacular squash showpiece is one of the sport’s most ambitious building projects, including a permanent show court with 800 seats.
Ashraf has more than 25 years of coaching experience, is a promoter of many squash tournaments, and is also a TV commentator for Egyptian TV and the Nile Sports channel.
As a player he became the British Open champion in the over-35 category in 1995, and the world champion in the same age group in 1995. He is fluent in Arabic, English and German. Believe me, the list of his achievements is long and would easily take the space dedicated to this interview.
Squash Mad: In a 2013 interview with Squash Mad you mentioned that Egypt was the leading squash nation and that it would not last forever. We meet in 2021 at Black Ball, eight years later, and Egypt’s dominance is not fading. What pushes squash forward in Egypt?
Ashraf Hanafi: Egypt will not dominate the game forever, but we try our best to stay on top for as long as possible. As game experts, we try to maintain our leading position in the world. It is impossible to stay on top forever. We had the experience with Pakistan, where this country dominated the game for 50 years and now there is nothing there compared to where they had been before. Our former champions, our coaches, put a lot of work into the juniors, seniors, actually in every stage of players’ development to keep Egypt the No. 1 nation in squash.
As for Black Ball players, I am very happy with Salma Hany’s game, because she has improved her game. We have two promising juniors, you probably watched them in the tournament – Ahmed Wael and Ahmed Ismail. They are only 17 years old. We have two more promising boys who are 15 years old.
We have many junior programmes and we are working hard to stay on top, but unfortunately I do not see such work elsewhere in the world. Maybe that is why we are still the best squash nation.
Squash Mad: It is interesting. I noticed that Egyptian coaches are innovative and creative when it comes to training methods (I have been accompanying my daughter in her training trips to Egypt since 2015). In my opinion, all the hard work you mentioned plus the innovation and creativity are pushing Egyptian squash forward. Will you agree?
Ashraf Hanafi: That’s 100% true. Innovation is knowing the whole history of the game, what the player has to improve in their game, what report to write for the player, in which direction they should go, how to save a few centimeters in movement, how to hit a good length, cross, width. It is a lot of things.
Also how to put together all these skills to develop your game. Does it match your character? Does it fit in with your culture? Do you like it? And then how will you play, with what plan, do you have different game plans? Could you change your plan depending on your opponent’s plan? Are you listening? Are you calm enough to change your plan? That’s a lot of stuff.
In Egypt, we have something that is very important, which is the care of parents who will push their children forward, and we pay attention to details. In my opinion, the attention to details in the game and the small changes that we have been working on, sometimes for quite a long time, produce great results.
When we work on one, then cross the point, then the second detail for improvement will always come up. Even the No. 1 player in the world is not a complete player and needs to work on their game and changes to their game. I believe that the big secret of Egyptian squash is attention to details and the hard work that goes in to those details.
Squash Mad: I am to ask about your October 2019 goal. You said back then that your goal was to make Black Ball the biggest club in the world. I come from the country where the biggest club in the world is actually located (Ashraf mentioned Hasta La Vista without hesitation). What have you done since then to get closer to this goal?
Ashraf Hanafi: We are very close. I will show you on a club tour a place where we are going to build another 8 to 16 squash courts. We would love to have 33 courts just to say that we are the biggest squash club in the world, but I hope it will be soon, but I do not know exactly when, because the finances are at stake. However, we already have a land, we have a project and we are in stage 2 of construction, so these 8 to 16 courts will complement our 18 courts. (To clarify: there are currently 16 courts and a space for 2 new courts in Black Ball where they will be built soon).
Squash Mad: In 2019, you also mentioned that you want to open new Black Ball branches both in Egypt and abroad. How much have you achieved in this field?
Ashraf Hanafi: I think that by organising these tournaments (Black Ball Squash Open) we have become the centre of squash in the world. Everyone who talks about Egypt mentions Black Ball as one of the best clubs and tournament organisers.
We got a lot of offers from outside Egypt: from Europe and the United States. We just need a little time and the right direction. As for the country, we want to build a big club, not only for squash, but also for other sports and we are already looking for land. We have finances, we have a location to find, and I hope to surprise you with the news about a new club soon.
Squash Mad: You mentioned that you have become the bst squash centre in the world and it shows, no doubt. My thoughts go back to the tournament in March 2020, which was won by Hania El Hammamy. Before this tournament, it looked like you would be running separate professional tournaments, one for men and one for women. However, a lot has happened since March 2020. Thanks to the pandemic, the tour stopped and, after that long break, it felt that Egypt saved the PSA Tour by organising three major tournaments at the end of 2020 – the World Series Final, the Egyptian Open, the Black Ball Squash Open and now in March 2021 the Black Ball Squash Open again. How many tournaments in total have been organised by the Black Ball club in the club’s short lifespan?
Ashraf Hanafi: The club opened in November 2018, it is now March 2021 and in less than three years we have organised seven big PSA tournaments. Five of them were platinum and two gold. The organisation is good now, there is television, there are sponsors, so everything is going as it should.
Now, we want to organise big tournaments outside the club in touristic places and do something new as Black Ball. This is very important, but now I have to mention the godfather, I don’t want to say of squash in Egypt, but squash in the world, that is the CIB Bank and its CEO Hussein Abaza. This is our main sponsor, and without him it would be much more difficult.
I still remember four years ago when I had a meeting with Hussein Abaza. By the way Hussein Abaza was a very good squash player himself. He was the national champion. I spoke and gave a presentation before the first tournament and asked why CIB would not become a sponsor like BNB Paribas, or like Rolex or Mercedes in tennis.
Everyone knows these names now, including sponsorship of tennis tournaments. I believed in this idea then and he believed it too, and now CIB is the main sponsor of tournaments organised in Egypt. We are on TV, these tournaments are broadcast, and we have millions of viewers, which of course makes everything easier.
This gallery features Hussein Abaza, the CEO of CIB Bank, who is a key figure in the development of squash in Egypt
Squash Mad: What are the main goals of the Black Ball squash programmes? Could you please mention the number of juniors in Black Ball? They are the future of squash.
Ashraf Hanafi: Of course. We have a lot of programmes. We have programmes for the teams and we have 11 of them : U11, U13, U15, U17, U19 (boys and girls) and seniors (mixed team) who play in the Egyptian League. These teams include 95 female and male players. We also have an academy which has five levels (level 1-level 5) and if you pass the test at level 5 then a player qualifies for the U11 preliminary team.
Imagine you have 5 levels to complete to qualify for the U11 pre-team and then it’s U11 and there are 130 players in that group. Then we have the third programme – mini squash – aimed at children four to five years old, where we mainly work on feeling the ball, holding the ball, holding the racket, catching the ball, moving, recording the ball, such small things to get them ready for the next levels. We prefer children who did gymnastics before and we have a lot of them in the academy.
This programme lasts only six months, then there is a test, another three months followed by a test and only then they go to the academy. Later I will show you how good the system is when visiting the club.
At the academy, the tests are performed every three months and every three months each player receives a personal report on what they are to work on for the next three months. Every three months you can move up a level or stay at the same level for the next three months.
Some go higher quickly and some stay at the same level for six months or even a year. Everyone develops differently. Coaches write reports, so the children know perfectly well what to work on in a given period to move to the next level. Building a player starts at a very young age.
Squash Mad: I understand that these programmes were created to achieve a goal, such as a junior world champion. What is the ultimate goal for juniors?
Ashraf Hanafi: The highest goal is, of course, the title of the World Junior Champion. Out of the 95 players on our teams, 80 would say that this title is a goal for them, but we also have small goals. We have our local tournaments in Egypt and we have the Egyptian League.
Last season we performed a miracle as we ended the league as a runner-up in the junior league for all boys’ teams in each age category. We only lost to Wadi Degla, but we were beating big clubs such as Ain Shams, Heliopolis, Smouha or Sporting. And that’s fantastic, because you can only take one position individually, but on the team in each boys’ category we were second, which means we have a lot of good players.
We’re not the best, but we’re working for it. We have one player who is just a rocket player, he is just 15 years old and he has already shown himself as a very strong player. We are going now to a new season which will start in April and we will give the trials to different players to come to and represent our club.
We will pay for plane tickets, we will offer them free training, they will have to become club members, but we are building a really solid system to be the best not only in Egypt but also in the world.
Squash Mad: As for the world, I noticed that Black Ball club hosts foreign players. You hosted Alesya Aleshina (current Russian Champion) as well as siblings Varya Esina and Makar Esin also from Russia. I would like to know whether every foreign player is welcome at Black Ball.
Ashraf Hanafi: Yes, we look after them. We prepare a very good and separate programme for them, because we start with a fitness and technical test and then we put together the best programme for them, according to the length of their stay (2-3 weeks).
They train hard both physically, mentally and tactically. It’s hard because the workouts add up to five hours a day, but we try to use this time as well as possible. Then they receive a report with instructions on what to work on for the next year. We write about their strengths and weaknesses so that they know exactly what to work on.
That is why they come back to us more and more often, because they have very good care and professional training here. I believe that in squash you need an expert eye to guide a given player in the right direction, reducing the time for experiments. Big changes can be made in a short time, saving you money and, of course, time. You can also, of course, not follow the advice and then it will take more time.
There will be an annual improvement due to the fact that juniors develop physically, so they will be faster, stronger, but with good professionals around them they can go straight to the point. We cooperate with the Russian Federation and we intend to strengthen this cooperation with them.
They are already thinking about preparation for the European Championships and the World Junior Championships. They seem to use the experience of many federations and want to avoid unnecessary mistakes.
Squash Mad: Thank you very much for your time.
Ashraf Hanafi: Thank you.
Ashraf Hanafi proudly presents Black Ball Sporting Club:
Pictures courtesy of Black Ball Sporting Club and PSA World Tour