By James Zug
It was a storybook ending to a rollicking ten-day celebration of squash excellence: Nour El Tayeb and Ali Farag, a married couple, each triumphed to win the 2017 U.S. Open presented by Macquarie Investment Management.
It was almost unique in the annals of sports. The most celebrated example was probably the so-called Love Double, when Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors both bagged singles titles at Wimbledon in 1974; at the time they were engaged to marry but they broke off the engagement in October, a month before their wedding.
There are even a few closer analogues to the El Tayeb & Farag Double. A Czech couple, long-distance runner Emil Zatopek and javelin thrower Dana Zatopkova, captured Olympic gold medals on the same day at the 1952 Helsinki Games (serious love match: they were even born on the same day of the same year). Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, married in 2013, won gold together playing for Great Britain’s field hockey team at the 2016 Rio Games. Dorothy and Cecil Wright cruised to sailing gold on the same crew at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. England’s Gabby and Chris Adcock have won numerous top-flight mixed doubles badminton events together, including gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. In badminton, though, they still recall the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when Indonesia’s Susi Susanti and Alan Budikusuma both seized gold in singles, Indonesia’s first-ever gold medals. Nearly a million adoring fans greeted the engaged couple when they returned home; they married five years later.
For professional squash, it was a first. It was even more remarkable because neither Nour El Tayeb nor Ali Farag had ever won a major title before. They were not seeded to even make the finals (Farag was a four seed, El Tayeb a ten seed). Much was expected of both but not so soon, let alone at the very same tournament.
Actually, it was in Boston that both Cairenes first enthralled American audiences. At Harvard in the summer of 2011, El Tayeb vivisected the draw on her way to capturing the 2011 Women’s World Juniors title. She was quick, smart and subtly vicious in the front of the court, a protean talent.
At the very same time, Farag, Harvard class of 2014, was a Cantabrigian culling the college squash competition. A veritable Gumby, his arms and legs toothpick thin, his racquet work stunning for a collegian, Farag captured two national intercollegiate individual title and he led the Crimson to their first men’s team title since the 1990s.
Yet, translating potential into a World Series title is not easy. Squash is littered with dynamic prodigies who didn’t move from the junior to senior ranks effectively, whose weaknesses were exposed, who were burned out.
For El Tayeb and Farag, married in the summer of 2016, the timing of their Open love double made sense. El Tayeb had reached the finals of the 2015 U.S. Open, but had badly injured her shoulder—from a full-length dive in the quarters against Raneem El Welily. After surgery, she took a half a year off and her momentum thereafter stalled. She had been five in the world when she got injured and her ranking, after her return, hovered in the teens. She reached just one semi in the next year and a half. But she won in Hong Kong in September in a small warm-up event for the Open.
Farag, too, was poised for a breakthrough. In the past two years, he had consistently made the quarters or semis of World Series events, and in his first tournament of the season he pushed a resurgent Ramy Ashour to five games in the final of the J.P. Morgan China Open.
Importantly, in the past year, both have also made changes to their training that were beginning to bear fruit. El Tayeb still was playing at Heliopolis Club and working with Haitham Effat, her coach for the past decade. “But I decided in the last few months to add a new brain, a new way of thinking,” she said. She started training with Hossam Nasser. “I had been obsessed with my length game because I had lost confidence in my short game. Hossam and I have been doing a lot of pressure sessions focusing on attacking, adding bite to my short game.” She also started, last November, working with Ali Ismail, world champion Karim Abdel Gawad’s fitness coach.
In Philadelphia, El Tayeb wasn’t thinking she’d win the Open. In the second round, she battled through a close four-gamer against Salma Hany Ibrahim. “I was a bit nervous during the Salma match,” she said. “I really wanted to make my first World Series quarters since Hong Kong last year.” At the same time, the Ibrahim match gave her confidence. “I think I played well there in patches. The patches I felt were better than I’ve played all year, so that gave me confidence.”
In the quarters against world No.1 Nour El Sherbini, El Tayeb ironically felt far less pressure: “I was really trying to enjoy the squash. That is my plan until I retire: enjoy the moment. Enjoy being in the moment on court doing what I love.” She topped El Sherbini in four, then Laura Massaro in four in the semis. In the final, she came back from an 1-2 deficit to overcome El Welily.
The crucial moments in the final came in the fourth game. The score was close. El Tayeb rashly—early in the game—asked for a video referee appeal; the call was not overturned. Was she closing down? No. A few rallies later, she dove for a ball up front. It was near the same spot she injured her shoulder when she dove two years earlier. She lost the point. But the dive had upped her energy, improved her body language. El Welily still controlled the rallies. Her deception was brilliant. But El Tayeb retrieved expertly, making El Welily hit extra shots, and as soon as she herself had a chance she went for it. Usually it was a winner. She went on a stunning run: from 8-7 in the fourth, she captured fourteen points to El Welily’s five.
It was a historic victory in the quarter-century history of the women’s U.S. Open: El Tayeb was lowest seed to ever win the women’s draw and, incredibly, the first Egyptian woman.
Her husband’s career was also at an inflection point while in Philadelphia. A year ago Farag switched clubs, from Heliopolis to Wagi Degla. There he worked a half-dozen times with former world No.1 Karim Darwish. Farag kept his core team intact: his older brother Wael Farag, his main mentor; Bassem Makram, his coach that he gets on court with two or three times a week—“he’s more than a coach,” Farag said, “I can safely say he’s my second brother;” his trainer Hossam Shadad; Egyptian technical director Amr Shabana—“he’s got so much experience that he’s passing along and is adding a lot to my repertoire”—and his “godfather” Mike Way.
The Harvard coach was in touch with Farag by email and phone. Way was also on site at Drexel when Farag went through one of the two brutal five-game matches he endured early in the tournament. “It was pure guts,” Farag said about those matches with Mazen Hesham and Fares Dessouky. “Good players win when they’re on top,” said Farag. “Champions win even when they’re outplayed. And I guess it’s safe to say they were both the better players on the day. I just had to show my character and stick with them. Luckily I found a way.”
In the finals, Farag faced Mohamed ElShorbagy. Coach Way watched on SquashTV and texted El Tayeb comments for her to relay to Farag in between games. He gave simple, straight-to-the-point advice. Farag still wore the Harvard Veritas shield on his shirts. It was a tribute to his transformative four-years there and a subtle reminder that he had the Harvard coach in his corner.
The two best players on the men’s tour this season, ElShorbagy and Farag have become the newest acid and alkaline rivalry: Alexandria v. Cario, Bristol v. Harvard, power v. finesse. If Farag has gotten on court with a former world No. 1 in Darwish, ElShorbagy has done the same thing. This summer he spent a month in Ithaca, NY training with David Palmer. “It is the first time I’ve worked with someone,” he said, “who instead of asking me what I wanted to work on had a list of ideas when I landed there. That was exciting. I needed a fresh look at my approach and David’s supplied that.” A sign of the times: in between games, the two Ivy League coaches were texting the two Egyptians.
The 3-0 score line in the U.S. Open finals didn’t reflect how close the match was. In the first game, ElShorbagy was up 9-8 and clipped the top of the tin on an easy cross-court volley put-away, with Farag trapped in the back; ElShorbagy then squandered a game ball at 10-9 with a loose rail that resulted in a Farag stroke. In the second game, ElShorbagy was again up, 8-5 and then 9-7 and couldn’t close it out. At 9-8, John Massarella gave a conduct stroke, saying that ElShorbagy deliberately blocked Farag. The controversial call coursed across the digital landscape (more than a hundred people liked Nick Matthew’s praise of Massarella on Twitter). It also shocked ElShorbagy. He lost the next four points in a row and never really got close to Farag again.
Since the beginning of 2016 they have faced each other ten times, ElShorbagy has won six, Farag four. With the giants like Nick Matthew easing themselves off the stage, ElShorbagy v. Farag could finally replace Power v. Nicol as the next great PSA men’s rivalry.