Egyptian Brotherhood helps to establish Alexandria the Great: The ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria created a unique piece of sporting history this week, being the birthplace for all four finalists in Squash's AJ Bell PSA World Championships. The men’s final was a family affair with two time runner-up Mohamed El Shorbagy pitted against younger brother Marwan. Following last year's tense women’s final in their African homeland, the Alexandrians Raneem El Welily and Nour El Sherbini once again overcame all their 2017 opponents to set up a mouth-watering rematch.
In 2016, El Sherbini became World Champion for the second time when she edged three tight games against her Egyptian rival. El Sherbini seemed destined to take the crown for a third consecutive year, as she started confidently taking the first game 11-3. Few watching at that point would have given El Welily much chance of staging a comeback, but she grew in confidence and took a nail-biting second game 12-10. In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, it was now El Sherbini who was struggling to score points and El Welily closed out the match taking the next two games 11-7 and 11-5 to give her a maiden World Championship title.
El Welily had been close to becoming champion in 2014, but lost to Nicol David in an epic five game match. The World title that the Malaysian claimed on that occasion was the eighth in her illustrious career. However El Welily was able to shake off the memory of that Cairo encounter with a comprehensive quarter final defeat of David in Manchester. Earlier this year, Nicol David confirmed her status as a legend of The World Games, by collecting medals in four consecutive editions. Coming into Wroclaw 2017 as the three time champion of The World Games, David was looking to claim a fourth gold. However her hopes were dashed when Hong Kong's Joey Chan claimed a shock semi-final victory over Penang's finest squash player. It may have been an unaccustomed bronze medal for David, but that should not take away from the scale of her accomplishments at The World Games.
Remarkably, El Welily was not the only native Alexandrian at the Manchester Central Exhibition Hall to become World Champion at the third attempt. Mohamed El Shorbagy had been involved in two previous finals both played in the Qatari capital of Doha and both featuring the same opponent his countryman Remy Ashour. The two matches were titanic, draining, five game affairs, but it was the Cairo man who twice prevailed over the son of the ancient Mediterranean port. For Mohamed's third final he would have to overcome possibly his most difficult opponent- someone who knew in great detail Mohamed's strengths and weaknesses and with whom he shared the same parents, younger brother Marwan. Though both brothers were born in Alexandria, a decision was made at an early age that the siblings would leave the warm Mediterranean shores they called home, and would be educated in England in the much cooler port city of Bristol. Both started playing squash and their talent with a racquet was soon apparent, so much so that legendary champion Jonah Barrington became their mentor. During their teenage years, they both won the World Junior title twice, an achievement that has only been matched by Ashour.
Brothers with so much in common, but as they stood on court to face each other for the ultimate prize in their sport; they both knew that should they prevail and fulfil their boyhood dreams, that it could only be at the expense of heartbreak for their sibling. Before the match Marwan said “I know how much he wants it, but I want it just as much as him. I know he will do everything to do it tonight, but I'll be doing the exact same thing. I'm going to fight from the first point to the last point.”
In the final Marwan was true to his word. Mohamed took the first game 11-5. Undaunted Marwan fought back to level the match taking a tight game by a couple of points. Mohamed reclaimed the initiative in the third, with an 11-7 advantage to the man with two more years' worth of experience. One more game and Mohamed would claim the crown and Marwan would be disconsolate. However in a match full of shifts of momentum, the younger brother was not ready to abandon his dreams and ground out a gritty fourth game 11-9. The trophy's fate was still up in the air, the engraver knew that he would be etching the name El Shorbagy, but it would be the deciding game that would determine whether Mohamed or Marwan would be the other name to be placed in front. Mohamed had a valuable resource to draw upon, the disappointment of twice before going to the fifth game and falling short. He used this experience to take control of the championship game. Marwan was only able to muster six points before the ball fell to the floor for the final time. The brothers embraced, the other relatives smiled, relieved at the ending of their family ordeal and Alexandria rejoiced.
Joy was probably the predominant emotion for Frenchman Gregory Gaultier this week; even though the semi-final loss to Mohamed was professionally disappointing, the World number one did have something to celebrate: the safe arrival of new born son Liam. Gaultier experienced another bittersweet moment earlier this year in The World Games in Wroclaw. He arrived as the defending champion from the Cali 2013 edition of The World Games, but in Poland had to settle for silver behind German Simon Rosner. Given the talent of the Nile nation, it is surprising that up to the present day just one Egyptian squash player has taken gold at The World Games. We offer our congratulations to the four natives of Alexandria, who have thrilled their fellow Egyptians with their achievements on the squash court. We hope to welcome you and many other Egyptian sportsmen and women in 2021 at the next edition of The World Games in Birmingham, Alabama and look forward to seeing your athletes once again excel on a global stage.
Brian Salmon for The World Games