With upsets at the Optasia Championships, the British Open is looking wide open. It could be a case of last man standing, writes RJ Mitchell
Egypt’s Mazen Hesham, arguably the game’s greatest shot maker, has revealed that he is playing through the injury pain barrier, as he bids to bridge the gap from membership of the chasing pack to becoming a bona fide title contender.
The Black Falcon suffered a labral hip tear and subsequent hip impingement to the right hip at last year’s British Squash Open but decided against surgery in a bid to continue an upwardly mobile momentum which has carried him to a World No.9 ranking.
Last week at the Optasia Championships Hesham recorded his first victory over world champion Ali Farag, himself on the comeback trail from injury, since the quarter-final of the Qatar Classic in 2015, en route to an impressive semi-final placing.
Yet despite being forced to enlist the services of a personal physio at the Wimbledon Club, a precaution he will repeat at next week’s British Open, Hesham says he is now at the stage where crowd pleasing is no longer enough.
Hesham told Squash Mad: “It is great to beat Ali with it being so long since the last time I defeated him, but it is not enough anymore for me to play one amazing match and lose in the next round. Now I want to be challenging for the major titles.
“People only remember the winners not the way you play, it is all about the results and I want to be remembered for my results not just my squash.
“Playing against Ali, even although he was not 100%, is always tough, and I knew he would come back at me strongly, so despite that it was a good boost for my confidence.
“But you win a good match and that is great. What I need to be able to do is to back it up the next day and this is what makes you among the top 4 and will put me in the mix to win the top titles.”
Sadly for ‘Mazen the Maverick’ his five-game 66-minute match with Farag was followed by another full distance dust-up with Youssef Soliman and by his own admission the wheels had come off by the time the third game was finished.
Hesham said: “After the third game I couldn’t even warm the ball up. I tried to push but I was done, but given the fact I didn’t manage a proper off-season this year and how restricted my training is due to the issues with my hip then I have got to be happy with how I played.
“I think the fact I was able to do that at the Optasia was because I actually hired a physio for myself for the first time and I think this was a good move for me and one I will repeat at the British Open and the Worlds and then as much as I can.
“I always have niggles playing and this time I felt better. Physically I am not where I want to be yet but I am getting there and having a physio with me can really help in this aspect and cut down on the days I am out with minor injuries and also help me manage my existing problem.”
Hesham had been to see a specialist in Florida after last year’s British Open when the hip problem first surfaced but decided against surgery, despite it curtailing his training and he reflected with a whip crack wit that is never far from the surface. He added: “It has been tough but skill helps a lot when you are not as fit as you would like to be!
“People may think I am mentally or physically weak but they don’t know my back story, the other players mostly know but people watching will just say: ‘Mazen beats Ali so then he should be beating Youssef,’ but it is not as simple as that.
“Every match is 50/50 now but I am managing this and trying to get better every day and three years ago if you’d said to me I’d be in the top 10 now then I would not be sure, not because of my squash but because of my body. It just makes everything tougher for me but I am up for that challenge.”
With Mohamed El Shorbagy and Diego Elias both suffering injuries in the build up to the British Open and World No.1 Mostafa Asal suspended, the game’s most historic title – in the men’s draw at least – is looking like a case of last man standing.
Yet despite his own injury issue the Black Falcon must surely be considered a dark horse and he said: “If you look at my season it has been consistent without many upsets and mentally I am in there but for sure you are going to see more upsets and injuries and all of that will make it more interesting.
“Mohamed lost last week injured, Diego got injured and who knows how that will impact the British.
“If you ask me who is the favourite then I’d love to say myself but other than me it just depends on the week, the type of draw you have got and how you back up tough matches.
“It’s open for everyone. Look at (Karim Abdel) Gawad he is in the same section as El Shorbagy but the way I think it is only about your next match.
“That said if you are top eight in the world and you don’t believe you can win the big tournaments then you are going back home for sure but I focus on winning match by match and if I get that right I know how far I can go.”