Egyptian teen ace reveals how she has overcome injury and built herself up for a dazzling future
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Malaysian Correspondent
It’s been over a month since Nour El Sherbini shocked the world with her great run at the Women’s World Championships en route to being the youngest ever finalist, losing out only by two points in the fifth game to Laura Massaro. En route to that, she had taken out three of the world’s top five players, including the great Nicol David.
It’s not the first time the 18-year old has broken records. She’s the youngest World Junior Champion at 13, a title she has won a record three times (and with an opportunity to go for a fourth this August) and the youngest British Open finalist in 2012.
Just over a week ago, she won her biggest WSA title at the Texas Open as a qualifier, beating two top 10 players along the way. After an injury-hit 2013, which saw her world ranking plummet from 4th to 27th, this year sure seem to be extra kind to her.
This is an interview that’s been a work-in-progress for several weeks due to Nour’s busy month on the tour, but definitely one that’s well worth waiting for.
Soon after returning home from winning in Texas, she shares with us her experience in Malaysia, what she thinks about her critics, dreams of being world number one, and how she adores Roger Federer.
EXCLUSIVE: THE ONE THE SEEDS FEAR TALKS TO SQUASH MAD
INTERVIEW BY ALEX WAN
Now that you’ve got some time to sink in your great run at the World Championships, what are your thoughts about it?
It’s amazing to finish as the runner up in the World Open. It’s like a dream come true. I never thought I’d get there so quickly. But the most important thing for me is that you do not keep thinking what you did, but rather start thinking what you will do next.
In the final, against Laura Massaro, a large part of the local Malaysian crowd was rooting for you. Malaysians also learnt an Egyptian phrase in “ya la”. Did it surprise you to receive such support given you have broken their hearts in dethroning Nicol David the day before?
Yes, of course I was! The crowd was simply amazing and it surprised me that they came back to support me after I had beaten Nicol (David). I thought not be very pleased with me and would work to my disadvantage. But they showed how amazing and genuine Malaysians are when they came back to support me. Many were shouting “yala” which means “come on”. I’m so glad they appreciate me so much to even speak my language. Thank you, Malaysia, for having such blessed and beautiful people.
You became an instant superstar in Malaysia. I am sure you will recall how you were being mobbed for autographs and photos after the finals. You looked rather shocked and overwhelmed. How did you feel?
The Malaysian people are so nice and friendly. I was really shocked and I didn’t believe all these people were cheering for me. In my mind, I was asking if this is true.
With two semi-finalists in the World Championships (and a finalist in you of course), many would rate Egypt as clear favourites in Women World Teams this December. What do you say to this?
We are the dream team, as they call it. We have a very complete team and it is an honour to be part of it. Hopefully, we can be champions again this time.
Do you feel any differently playing in team events?
I usually love playing in them. I love the team spirit, where we are all one and we do everything together. Of course, playing in a team puts more pressure on me than if I am playing for myself. But then, I usually play better under pressure and I am looking forward to the World Teams very much.
Egypt has had seven world junior women champions and two world women’s team titles. To date, there hasn’t been an individual senior champion. What do you say to this?
It’s unfortunate that we’ve won everything except the women’s senior individual title. But we are getting closer and closer there, with two of us in the semis and me in the final this year. Hopefully, we will do better next year. If it’s me or any one of my team-mates who manages to win, the biggest winner would actually be Egypt.
Egypt has also been a very strong and dominant force in both the women’s and men’s game. Do you think this is going to be sustainable for a long time to come?
I certainly hope so. We have many juniors who are up and coming. Hopefully, they will remain hungry to succeed for a long time and will keep the Egyptian pride going in a respectful manner.
Your next major tournament is the British Open, an event where you reached the final in 2012. Given your great run in Penang and Texas, how do you like your draw and what are your targets for this event?
I’m not bothered by tournament draws and I think it’s a good thing because it doesn’t make me think too much, it keeps me focused. I just get on to the court and play. Last year, I had a good draw, but I lost in the last 16 (to compatriot Omneya Abdel Kawy). I was really upset about it, but this year, I have nothing to lose so I hope to do better than that.
Only a year ago (March 2013), you were ranked No.4 in the world. A year down the road, your ranking plummeted to 27, following your injury lay-off. Did this in any way affect your morale?
I was very upset when I saw my ranking go down so much, so fast. I try not to be affected by it too much and now, I am taking it one step at a time to get back up there.
There are not many things that can bring my morale down, generally. I do think of the rankings of course, but when I get on court, I just focus on staying calm and winning my match. Sometimes, I even forget my name in there!
Staying calm has helped me a lot in life. Like in school, I don’t panic that I miss classes because of squash, thinking I might fail my exams. I just study hard and do my best to pass. Sometimes I even get good grades!
In your WSA profile, you aim to be the youngest-ever world No.1. Where do you see yourself today in achieving that?
It’s my dream to world number one. I can’t say I am close yet, but who knows what will happen? I might be soon and maybe it won’t happen at all. But the most important thing is that I will never give up.
I have heard from the grapevine that certain parties have made comments such as “there’s always a problem with Nour” (assuming in relation to your injuries). How do you react and take to such criticisms?
I know I’ve had a lot of injuries in the past years. I try to take the criticisms in a positive light, instead of feeling negative about them. Everything in my squash career has happened so quickly and so early in my life.
What I can assure everyone now is that I am taking perfect care of my body, after visiting Aspetar (specialised orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital) in Qatar, where I worked with professional physiotherapists and doctors. I am feeling confident about my body now, so let’s hope I stay fit and well.
Can you tell us more about your most recent injury lay-off and if it’s a long-term concern for you?
Being a young player at my age, one can never lay off for too long. But I have a bit of experience as I had gone through one before in 2011, where my knee injury kept me out for six months.
But this recent lay-off I had was not just about treating my injury. I took time to also develop my overall physical body strength in order to challenge these great athletes on the squash court. A big thanks to my team who had worked really hard on this.
Some have said that because the Egyptian style of play focusses heavily on shot making, the trade-off is that physical conditioning is not taken as seriously (in comparison to other countries). Do you see this as a fair statement?
I can’t say that is a totally fair statement. Not everyone thinks the same way and no one will be more interested about their own body more than the player themselves.
When you start to play professionally, you learn what you need and what’s missing in your own body and your squash. I believe this is what the top Egyptian players do. They develop their own physical self in their own way.
What is your opinion on equal prize money for the ladies?
It’s definitely amazing! I am glad the subject is now more in the open as it’s time for women’s squash to get more recognition because we deserve it.
After winning the Texas Open, did it feel better than finishing runner-up in the World Championship?
Well the World Championships has a total different feeling. I was surprised to be there in the finals and this has boosted my confidence in myself big time.
The World Championships and Texas Open are two totally different event categories, but I do believe that entering the Texas Open with high hopes was a result of my Penang result.
At the end of the day, I am happy with both outcomes, but the Texas Open category happens several times a year but the World Championships comes only once a year.
Finally, I understand that you are a fan of tennis and football. Do you play yourself and who do you support – in both the sports?
Yes, I do play both when I have the time. Roger Federer is my idol. I look up to him in every way and everything he does. He’s my perfect idol to learn from.
As for football, Barcelona is my favourite team and I like them because of their fast attacking style of play, just like the Egyptian squash style.
Pictures courtesy of the Women’s World Championship, Texas Open and from the Squash Mad archive