The Guardian’s Kate Mason sets the scene for tonight’s World Championship semi-final showdown in Manchester.
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Ramy Ashour, the world’s best squash player, does not have a coach. He does not have a physiotherapist, full-time manager, fitness coach or psychologist either. In fact he travels alone. But the Egyptian tops the world rankings with the highest points average in the history of the professional tour and has not lost a meaningful match since May 2012.
Tonight in Manchester he faces England’s Nick Matthew in the semi-finals of the world championships and is beginning to feel he needs some help.
“I haven’t been enjoying my squash for the last few days and [the quarter-final] was the first day I’ve been enjoying my squash since the beginning of the tournament – so I’m happy. I am [training] myself. I might not be doing it right but obviously I’m doing something right to get to this level but I think I might need [a fitness coach] for a little more polishing.”
The championships are taking place in a magnificent all-glass show court in Manchester Central, near Oxford Road Station. The crowd sit all the way round the court and this, plus the low-level lighting, is suggestive of a boxing bout, which is exactly the point. A showman like Ashour is perfectly suited to such an environment. His elegance in shot-making, his movement, his enormous personal charisma, all make him a mesmerising poster boy for a sport desperately in need of one.
Squash is the only racket sport where the players share playing space and that proximity demands supreme mental toughness.
“Sometimes it gets pretty dark inside our heads,” says Ashour, 26. “And that’s the constant fight between you and your second enemy – which is you as well.”
If the “demons”, as Ashour terms his internal battles, are with him now, his 49-game unbeaten run on tour suggests they are under control. The last time the Egyptian lost was in the British Open final in May 2012, where he was beaten by Yorkshire’s Matthew, the man he faces on Saturday.
Matthew, the world No4, is optimistic and even sees an advantage in facing an opponent on a 17-month winning streak. “Everyone just expects him to win every time he goes out on court. We’re all out to knock him off his perch. It’s our job to sort of talk him up as such a favourite that he gets [this] in his own head and we can then capitalise.”
Ashour acknowledges the truth in this: “The more you get to the top the more things are harder for you sometimes to wake up and to push yourself. But for me to go on court and to win: that’s my ultimate pleasure. I just feel I need nothing else. Every time you push yourself you break something in your head mentally. I’m not happy doing it, I’m doing it for the aim of satisfaction and for the aim of feeling good about myself. You just do it because it’s very meaningful putting yourself through things you think you’re never going to do.”
He has travelled alone for the past 10 years. His mother, who manages him, first allowed him to do so when he turned 16. Since Ashour’s parents worked for EgyptAir, he finds the disjointed life on tour normal. “Even in the tournaments I just stay on my own because I know I’m a bit silly, I have my regimes and I don’t want to bother anyone with my regimes so I just take a single room, basically.”
It helps that the PSA Tour is thronged with Ashour’s compatriots. There are five Egyptians in the world top 10 alone and they regularly support each other at games. Egypt is a hotspot for squash, with Hosni Mubarak’s enthusiasm for the game often cited as the reason. The deposed former president provided the sport with one of its iconic images: a court close by the Pyramids.
Now that Egypt is better known for violent demonstrations and unrest, Ashour is keen to show another side. While trying to avoid politics, he just longs for stability. “It was a bit silly in the beginning for us but everyone realised that the military implemented this curfew for a good reason and for the benefit of us,” he said. “So everyone has to bear with them until they get a grip on things.”