Karim’s Cairo carnival of squash raises the bar after months of innovative planning
By ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)
Karim Darwish is one of the key individuals cementing Egypt’s position as the premier squash nation on the planet.
He is coach to the now three-times world champion Ali Farag, leader of the hugely influential Wadi Degla Academy, and promoter of two major tournaments, the PSA World Tour Finals and the CIB World Championships.
The latter event drew praise from all quarters after a successful staging at two new venues this past week, the Club S Allegria and the Egyptian National Museum of Civilization.
The early rounds were held on a glass court and traditional indoor courts at the impressive new club venue before moving to the Museum, where an eye-opening surprise awaited squash fans.
As well as the glass court surrounded by a huge number of seats, a spacious “crowd activation” fans’ zone contained food stalls, entertainment and a fun meeting place with lots of activities to keep spectators young and old amused.
Karim brings a lifetime of squash knowledge to these projects, having achieved the status of world No.1 in January 2009 and holding that position for 11 months.
Married to fellow squash star Engy Kheirallah, he was a stylish, attacking player and finished runner-up in the World Championship final to Ramy Ashour in Manchester in 2008.
When he retired from playing he set about the task of making a massive contribution to Egypt’s eventual position as the most powerful squash country in the sport’s history.
Pakistan may have produced five decades of male champions, but for most of that era women were forbidden from playing and squash was not available to those outside elite circles.
Pakistan’s collapse from prominence, following outstanding periods of dominance by Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan, was followed by years of success by Australia and England.
However, England now has no male players in the world top 20, while Australia has none in the top 100.
Egypt, on the other hand, is now ruling the male and female rankings at senior and junior level on an unprecedented scale.
And much of that is down to Darwish and his influential connections with the Wadi Degla Clubs and the phenomenal support of Hussein Abaza, the CEO of Egypt’s Commercial International Bank (CIB), the official backer of Wadi Degla’s Darwish Squash Academy and now prominent sponsors of the world’s richest tournaments in Egypt, the World Championships, the PSA World Tour Finals and the Black Ball Open staged at Cairo’s hugely impressive Black Ball Club.
On a humanitarian level, Egypt‘s promotion of women’s squash has been a shining example of gender equality and shown the way towards a more enlightened future for neighbouring Muslim nations.
Omneya Abdel Kawy was runner-up to Nicol David at Sharm El Sheikh in 2010 before Nour El Sherbini and Raneem El Welily became Egypt’s first women’s world champions.
Nour was runner-up to England’s Laura Massaro in 2013, Raneem finished second to Nicol David the following year, and Nour became Egypt’s first female world champion in 2015, beating Massaro in Kuala Lumpur.
This week she won her sixth world title after an impressive return to action following a two-month break caused by an injury that forced her to concede to current world No.1 Nouran Gohar in March’s Black Ball final.
Along with Farag, Nour lifted the World Championship trophy in front of a packed venue full of delirious fans who share a nation’s pride at such an unparalleled level of sporting excellence.
I caught up with Karim the day after those finals.
AT: Karim, congratulations on running a wonderful World Championship in Cairo. Please tell Squash Mad readers about the process involved in selecting the two new venues, Club S Allegria and the Museum.
KD: We chose the Museum as the main venue, because we wanted to make it an iconic location and not at the Pyramids, as many events have been played at the Pyramids and we have so many nice, iconic locations in Egypt.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization is one of the most important museums around the world, and we chose to set the venue in the outside area by the landscape and lake, and it looked fabulous!
AT: Who designed the layout of the two sites.
KD: We worked as one team with the CIB marketing team and the production agency called Event House. We held weekly meetings for around 10 months, in order to reach the final layout, and we discussed everything in fine detail!
AT: What was the crowd capacity at the Museum?
KD: It was around 1,700 seats.
AT: I heard great things about the crowd activation areas. Please tell me more about it.
KD: I always believe that squash events should include an entertainment part, so that’s why we worked on having a huge entertainment area for all family members, with very nice food outlets, so that squash lovers and non-squash lovers could enjoy the event. It was more of a carnival than a squash event.
AT: What were the main challenges of staging an outdoor event?
KD: The main challenge was the wind on some days while we were building the court, but during the event the weather was very nice.
AT: How many Wadi Degla players were competing?
KD: We had 15 players competing from Wadi Degla, and this is probably the biggest number of players from one club in the history of squash.
AT: Your thoughts on Ali Farag winning his third world title?
KD: Ali deserves to be back on top, and to win his third World Open title. We work together on trying to peak in big events, and certainly the World Championship was one of them.
AT: Your plans for next year?
KD: I have many plans in my squash academy, which is the biggest in the world with more than 2,500 players in nine branches all over Egypt at Wadi Degla clubs, and we are working together in making new champions.
Together with Wadi Degla clubs we are organising the PSA World Tour Finals in June for the fourth consecutive year, and it’s also one of the most prestigious events.
Karim’s joy at staging such a successful Museum piece was shared by players, fans, officials and media staff.
The PSA’s Nathan Clarke, who has kindly shared some of his brilliant images from the finals night, said: “It was such an impressive new venue that looked great visually from the side stand, with a superb activation area.
“That area was seriously impressive – with lots of activities and fun bits, probably the best I’ve seen anywhere in squash.”
The PSA’s Tournament Director Tim Garner added: “It was great to have the event hosted at a new location, that was in the centre of Cairo and accessible to so many people.
“All week, both at Club S and the Museum, youngsters were loving the squash and were very, very keen to get their hands on the white balls at the end of the matches. The new venue worked superbly in terms of glass court location and a spacious entertaining activation area next to it.
“It was tricky having a two-day overlap with two glass courts in play, which split the resources but it went well.”
India’s world No.46 Ramit Tandon presented the players’ view of the whole operation. He said: “Egypt is considered the Mecca of squash – there is no doubt that people here love the game, there is a fan following and a sense of legacy which makes it very special.
“As a player, the hospitality, warmth and love that we receive here is incredible! I had heard there would be a glass court at the Museum, an iconic location but isn’t that normal for squash events?
“We already have squash by the Pyramids, squash in Grand Central station and Union Station in Chicago, so iconic locations aren’t foreign to us!
“But I was wrong. When I walked into the venue I could see it’s not only about the location but the culture – so many people watching, probably the most number of spectators and their emotional involvement. Kids idolizing and supporting their favourite players and fans across all ages enjoying a lovely evening.
“Matches went on post-midnight and if we were playing elsewhere the stands would be empty – but not in Cairo!”
As for the fans’ zone, he added: “Yes, they did so well with getting the crowd involved! It was like a proper, high-quality event – with a lot of food stalls, drinks and games for the youngsters.”
Referee Jason Foster, who took charge of the men’s final, said: “The venue was fantastic. CIB are very generous sponsors to the PSA tour and Karim Darwish and his team did an excellent job putting on and promoting the event.
“The hospitality was perfect, hotels were amazing, the best I’ve ever experienced. The crowd at the Museum venue were fantastic, too.”
Renowned Egyptian coach Amir Wagih, who runs the Palm Hills Squash Academy, loved the whole experience. He said: “It was an amazing venue. You know Egypt is doing a lot to support tourism and this museum is one of our new additions.
“It was very iconic to host the tournament over there and I am very proud of Karim Darwish and would like to congratulate him on this success.”
The final piece of the jigsaw was the fact that the 2022 World Championships in Cairo set a new record as the richest squash tournament in history with $1.1million in prize money shared equally between the genders, with each champion taking home almost $80,000.
It was a subtle nod to the rest of the world that Egypt is leading the way on every single facet of the squash landscape.
And Karim Darwish, his partners and supporters, aim to keep it that way.
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The PSA media team bade farewell in Cairo to Ellie Mawson, who worked so hard throughout the World Championships in her last squash engagement before moving to a new career in Formula One. We wish Ellie every success and thank her for her kindness and support at so many events.
Pictures courtesy of Nathan Clarke (PSA World Tour)