Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Mohamed ElShorbagy: ‘When we played it was war, now Gaultier can take me to top’

Mohamed ElShorbagy is rattling off the opening five Platinum events on the PSA tour. He notes that in the past these were titles shared between himself and Egyptian rival Ali Farag. Now, four of the last five have been dished out amongst the game’s current elite and ElShorbagy, ahead of an enticing four-month period, is adamant that he can muscle in and challenge for World No.1 with more title bounty before the summer.

He does so alongside crediting Gregory Gaultier in changing his mind from thoughts of retirement to a refocus that will send the five-times former World No.1 into the business end of the season as one of the favourites for the game’s major titles once again.

The night when ElShorbagy almost called it a day came after his second round loss at last year’s British Open to Germany’s Raphael Kandra, which provided the nadir of a form nosedive that had many observers and coaches writing ‘The Beast’ off.

Yet the Egyptian had already selected his former rival as the man to transform his fortunes. Within a month ElShorbagy came within two points of winning a second world title.

From there ElShorbagy’s rejuvenation has grown apace, with Gaultier plotting a course that has already seen the 32-year-old pocket a Platinum title and contend at the apex of almost every tournament he enters.

Now with Thursday’s Black Ball Open set to begin a sequence of major titles that will culminate in May’s Chicago World Championships, the Alexandrian has revealed just why Gaultier has managed to make him live and dangerous again.

ElShorbagy said: “Last season I was really struggling with my poor results and there were six months from November 2021 to April 2022 I didn’t even make the quarter-final of a Platinum event.

“I was at a low ebb physically and mentally and there was a lot going on with my life and there were tough decisions to be made emotionally for me and this was all effecting me really I was almost ready to retire.

Victory roar from Mohamed ElShorbagy

“So I needed to find someone to help me through all of that and with a stage of my career which was obviously providing different challenges than those I had in my twenties. I had a good level of success from a young age at a time when the people I am now competing with weren’t even on tour and that is a lot to deal with.”

It was then that ElShorbagy’s thinking moved outside the box as he explained: “The key for me was that Greg had gone through something similar. He was in the top 10 when he was young and he played in the World Championship final in Cairo back in 2006 when I remember watching this event as a kid! 

“Then obviously he became a great rival of mine when we played not just in the early rounds but in big finals. We battled for World No.1, we battled for world champs and we battled for British Opens and I became a part of his story for a significant part of his career.

“But we had a lot of respect for each other although we were not best friends. He had his team and I had mine and whenever we played each other it was a war really, so I think he was a bit surprised that I called him for help!

“But I knew how professional and how competitive he was and he was the best player who played the sport in his 30s, the oldest World No.1, the oldest world champion.

“He was also hungrier than any other player I competed against in my career, so I wanted to have someone like him on my side and after he retired I finally got that opportunity and now we have a very good partnership.

“We both have a lot of similarities in our characters and it is a very easy relationship. I love going out to Prague to train with him and do so as often as I can. I am lucky to have him as my coach.”

When it came to dissecting Gaultier’s qualities as a coach ElShorbagy cited an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and humility as two key aspects: “Greg is always very positive as a coach. He gets very close with you and everyday we speak but it’s not just that, every conversation with him is so interesting.

“He has so much knowledge about all the different aspects of the sport, the fitness side, the nutrition side, the sports science, physical, mental that is because when he played he was so competitive that he needed to know about everything he came across. 

“Most players when they have a physio session they just go there and take the treatment and leave. With Greg no! If someone worked on his body he wanted to know why they did this and did it in a particular way.”

Warming to his theme, ElShorbagy continued: “Also when Greg talked I noticed that it is never about himself. I have read so many times about him saying: ‘I am just an advisor for El Sherbini or ElShorbagy,’ whereas many other coaches when they talk they try to take the spotlight. 

Mohamed ElShorbagy lights up his career again with victory in Qatar

“With other coaches people don’t know them from when they played the sport whereas in this respect Greg is very confident within himself but whenever he says he is an advisor I have to laugh as he is way more than that for me.

“When I lost the first round of the British Open it was almost over for me and I thought about it but then he took me to the final of the world champs in Egypt a month later, so I think he is a bit more than just an advisor!

Looking forward ElShorbagy has no doubt that the depth of competition at the top of the men’s game has never been so fierce and he said: “For five or six years it was a rivalry between me and Ali (Farag) for No.1 but this season it is the first time for me it is not about just two players battling it out for the top spot. I’d say there are now about five players fighting for it.”

The first four Platinum events of the season have seen four different winners. ElShorbagy won the first then Farag won in Egypt, Diego Elias at the US Open and Mostafa Asal in Hong Kong, before Elias picked up his second at the recent Tournament of Champions.

“Now we have four big months ahead starting with Black Ball, then the British, Worlds, El Gouna and World Tour Finals and whoever does best in these tournaments can be No.1, so there are a group of us at the same level and for me at this stage of my career I am very happy to have that challenge.”

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