‘I need to change my movement and strengthen my injured leg, but that won’t happen overnight so I can’t plan a timetable for my return’
By R J MITCHELL (Squash Mad Correspondent)
In 2022 he has won the world championship, defending it successfully against his oldest rival, Mohamed ElShorbagy, and will almost certainly finish the year as No.1 for a fourth time. Yet now a giant shadow has fallen across Ali Farag’s career.
Speaking exclusively to Squash Mad, in the first of an in-depth two-part interview, the man described as ‘nature’s gentleman’ by no less than the father of the modern professional game, Jonah Barrington, Farag has revealed he has no date or timescale for his return to the PSA World Tour.
A worrying knee injury caused Farag to scratch in the final of the US Open on October 16 and, despite returning to the court just three days later against Nicolas Mueller in the Grasshopper Cup, Farag played on one leg before losing in straight games as the true nature of the challenge facing him became clear.
After consulting with four experts in four different countries, as well as undergoing extensive rehab work to fix the condition known as Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome, the World No.1 was forced to abort planned comebacks at the recent Singapore and then Hong Kong Opens.
Now Farag has had to admit that putting a target in place for his return to the court he has garnered with such effortless grace over the years is hindering his recovery programme.
A sanguine Farag explained: “It’s an interesting one as when I first had it I did not know what it was. So, I finished the US Open final at maybe 9pm and then I got sorted out with one of the best knee surgeons in New York. The next morning I was in the doctor’s office in New York at 8.30 and then had an MRI that day.
“I was relieved that it turned out pretty good as the knee is pretty healthy, the tendons and ligaments are all good so obviously I had Switzerland four days later and on the way I stopped by another knee specialist in Cologne, Germany, called Paul Klein.
“Doctor Klein also looked at the MRI and the diagnosis was the same: the tendons and ligaments are fine but I have something called Patellofemoral (syndrome) which is a joint abnormality.
“Basically you have your patella which moves up and down through a groove in your femur (thigh) bone and, if you keep on lunging and the mechanics of your leg and your body are poor after lunging for 25 years, then eventually the patella moves.
“So it may move slightly to the left, right, or up and down and it does not really fit in the groove and continues to rub the bone of the knee and when it catches it is painful.”
The world champion continued: “Basically, then I had an Hyaluronic Acid injection (a naturally occurring substance in the body that helps lubricate and cushion tissues, replenish joints and ease pain) which is basically a gel that diminishes the scratching between the bones.
“I had it in Germany and it made me feel a lot better and I thought I was good to play at the Grasshopper Cup in Switzerland. Although I had maybe four days in between, I tried and it was very painful and I just couldn’t do anything with my right leg. So I had to leave Switzerland and went back to Egypt where I saw my doctor, who was the third orthopaedic specialist I had seen, and he agreed with the diagnosis.
“I then also had a consultation call with Derek Ryan (PSA Physio), whom I have worked very closely with over the last five years, and he explained it all to me: basically my mechanics are poor.
“So, I need to have my glute and my quads and my feet all strong enough to bear the wait of my body when it lunges, as right now they are not strong enough to cope with that and are not aligned, and this is what causes the knee irritation.
“Really it’s basically something I have been doing for 25 years and now I have to change the way I engage my muscle groups, so I went to Ireland and I saw Derek for two weeks and I worked every single day and it really improved, which was great.
“I guess I’d say the pain was eight out of 10 in the beginning just doing my daily routine but now it is down to a two when going about my day, but the more I worked in the gym there was some stuff I just couldn’t do at all and I stopped progressing as I had hoped.”
Yet while Farag’s positive outlook is a huge testament to how he goes about his business with an upbeat mindset, even the three-time world champion admits his positivity is now being sorely tested.
He added: “All this time I hoped I would play Singapore and it never really happened, and then it was the same with Hong Kong, and now I have made the decision that I will not be putting any timeline on this thing.
“The timeline is actually slowing down the process. I keep forcing things and I want to rush back on court and the annoying bit is the news that the knee is very healthy, the tendons and ligaments are good, but the problem is that it’s a bone issue.
“The fact I have to change my muscle engagement will not happen overnight, so whether that will be better in one week’s time or six months I have no clue. This is the annoying bit as some days are better than others and there is no trend as to why that is.
“I try to push it in the gym to take the next step and sometimes it’s good and then sometimes it’s very painful and I am forced to take a couple of days off and fall back on the basics again. So it is very frustrating.
“But I keep telling everyone around me that I’ve had maybe eight years on tour and this is the only real injury I have had, so I am grateful for that.
“Obviously in the heat of the moment it is very frustrating but if you keep looking at the bigger picture then I can’t complain.
“So I will keep on doing what I am doing and not setting goals like coming back for Tournament of Champions, I just have to work hard every day on changing the mechanics and hopefully things will work out sooner than later.”
Performing at the very peak of his powers and having reclaimed the World No.1 ranking from Paul Coll, who had vanquished him in the British Open earlier this year, with a successful four-game revenge mission in the final of the CIB Egyptian Open, the 30-year-old has been stricken at a most inopportune moment.
Yet, true to form, Farag has taken succour from the surgeons’ unanimous diagnosis that this is not a career-threatening injury.
But there is a nasty sting in the tail and he said: “I saw another surgeon in Ireland so I had seen four surgeons in total over four countries, and I have also seen one of the best physiotherapists in the world in Derek Ryan, and they all agreed it is nothing serious.
“But how long it will leave me on the sidelines is the big question, and I can’t answer that right now.”
Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour