Squash world No. 1 Nour El Sherbini tells Sport360 about the pressure of being at the top of her sport and why she believes no is the time for Arab women to make strides in the field.
If you’ve ever wondered if life at the top of one’s sport gets easier as time goes by, squash world No. 1 Nour El Sherbini can assure you that it does not.
The 22-year-old Egyptian has extended her reign at the summit of the world rankings to 22 months, and counting. She has won her last three consecutive World Series tournaments – most recently claiming the Tournament of Champions in New York last week – and has reached the final in her last five events.
She surely does make it look easy. But El Sherbini would be the first to admit that the pressure grows exponentially the longer she’s at the helm, and explains the mental struggles she faced last year before getting back on track.
“It’s never getting easier, it’s challenging more and it’s getting harder actually. I keep playing tournament after tournament, thinking it’s going to get easier but it never does,” El Sherbini told Sport360 at the opening ceremony of the Arab Women Sports Tournament in Sharjah, where she was invited as an honorary guest.
“At first when I became world No. 1 I was like ‘okay, I’m there now, what’s next?’ I just went on to play another tournament. But last season, I lost all the tournaments I contest – I just won the World Championship.
“So in the summer I just trained more and I’ve been doing so well until now. We just started the second half of the season and in the first month, I couldn’t wish for a better start. I think it’s really going well until now, I just hope to keep going like this. I still have three more tournaments to go and I hope I can keep going.”
El Sherbini saw her World Championship title defence end at the hands of fellow Egyptian Raneem El Welily in Manchester last December. She avenged that defeat in her next tournament though, taking down El Welily in the final of the Saudi Women’s Masters – the first professional women’s tournament to be held in Saudi Arabia.
El Sherbini was thankful she managed to rebound immediately from her World Championship disappointment, and was thrilled to be part of such a historic moment for Saudi Arabia. The tournament of course was not without its challenges.
“It was a historic event and I was really proud to be there, just participating in that event,” said El Sherbini.
“All of us, we didn’t know what to expect, it was the first tournament (in Saudi Arabia) and we knew we were going to face a lot of challenges there.
“Only women were allowed to come and watch us, so it was just us, the athletes, all of us in the same place. We weren’t able to take any pictures inside the court. First they said some of the players had to play wearing leggings, and others played with skirts. But skirts were fine since there were only women at the venue. It wasn’t televised… it was really challenging.”
Saudi Arabia has been trying to remove some of the barriers discouraging women from taking up sport, and the country recently allowed females to attend a football match, opening stadium doors to them for the first time.
The Saudi Women’s Masters was another promising initiative and El Sherbini says it was a step in the right direction.
“It was really a very good start and all the players were really happy, going everywhere with their abayas. They really enjoyed it and us Egyptians were really enjoying it, it was very safe. We didn’t have any problems there and the tournament was very successful,” said the Alexandrian.
“For me it was really important because it was just after the World Championship and I had just lost it. So it was really important to get back to training and go back to compete, it was really hard for me mentally. But I’m really glad that this is one of the reasons that helped me keep going, winning Saudi, then winning the Tournament of Champions (in New York). If I hadn’t gone back to training right away, it would have taken me longer (to bounce back). So I’m glad we had this tournament just after it.”
El Sherbini is the first Egyptian woman to win a World Championship (she won two), and is also the first to claim a British Open title. Her history-making feats have seen her become an icon for Arab women in sport and she recently won the Mohammed bin Rashid Creative Sports Award in the ‘Outstanding Arab Athlete’ category.
In Sharjah, she attended the opening ceremony of the Arab Women Sports Tournament, where 68 different teams from across the Arab world are competing across nine sporting disciplines.
El Sherbini is embracing her position as a role model for Arab women and encourages them to venture into the world of sport.
“I think there’s no better time than now because women’s sport (in the Arab world) is really on top now and it’s the time to get up and try something new and know that it’s your right to play sports, try to do whatever you want, just go for it and just try to enjoy it,” she says.
“I always feel like it’s a responsibility on me to attend these kind of events. People are always watching, and waiting for you, so you have the responsibility towards them, to be there, try to help as much as you can.”
The latest squash rankings, released on February 1, are led by three Egyptian women with El Sherbini at the top followed by El Welily and new world No. 3 Nour El Tayeb. It is yet another sign of Egypt’s dominance in the sport and El Sherbini is honoured to be part of this historic era of squash in her country.
“It’s really special. It’s our time now and we’re really enjoying it, enjoying being at the top,” she added.
“I feel we still have more time at the top and there are more good juniors coming up. It’s really special to have the top three, alongside with Nouran (Gohar) also in the top 10. Hopefully we can have more joining us. Also on the men’s side there are seven Egyptians in the top 10. I’m just really proud to be one of them.”