By RJ Mitchell
Ali Farag has hailed his second World Championship title triumph as the greatest moment of his career and underlined just why it eclipsed his first global triumph back in the 2018/19 season.
A disconcerting loss of form which had seen him lose all his matches at the CIB World Tour Finals to make a shocking exit at the group stages combined with the understandable worry concerning the birth of his first child, Farida, who was born just 11 days before he claimed his second World Championship in Chicago, all conspired to make the build-up the 2021 Worlds the most fraught Farag had experienced.
All of which saw the Egyptian hook back up with Mike Way, his former college coach from his days at Harvard, with his parents and wife and fellow professional player, Nour El Tayeb present as the then-World No.1’s preparation changed dramatically for the iconic tournament.
This subsequently allowed the World No.2 to produce what the immortal Jonah Barrington, in an exclusive interview with PSA website last week, described as “the best squash of Farag’s career” over the final two and a half games of the World Championship against his greatest rival, Mohamed ElShorbagy, to get back to his best form.
Causing the now two-time World Champion to admit: “Listen, on all aspects this was my biggest win. The only factor that was better in the first was the relief factor, you are always desperate to win your first World Champs and when I did, I remember I cried for almost 15 minutes after that first World title!
“But this one was more special for just so many more reasons. The biggest of these was the birth of my daughter 11 days earlier and then having Nour, my daughter and Mike there made it even more special.
“Then also to beat the biggest rival of my squash career in the final in Mohamed lifted this win another level again and of course it came on the back of disappointing form in my previous tournaments.
“So, there are so many reasons that just makes this World Championship the most special of the lot and I will never forget these moments.”
One of the most candid individuals you can hope to interview, Farag was bitingly honest about the importance of the role his long-time mentor Way had to play in his resurrection: “When things are not right, Mike is the guy I speak to, and he was fantastic as always. Really, I don’t know how I had coped. Honestly my form was not the best at the World Tour Finals things didn’t go my way, but I never thought that the problem was with my squash. Really, I knew that the mindset had to click again, and I needed something to make that click happen.
“So, Nour had been in Chicago a month before me just to settle in with everything that was coming with the arrival of the baby and so I joined up with her a couple of weeks before the tournament and I knew then that I was not in a good place, and we decided that I had to go and see Mike Way.
“Straight away Mike said to me: ‘Ali, let’s look at this from the point of view that you are writing a book about yourself, and this is the Chicago Chapter. No matter how that goes it is going to be the best chapter of your life. Your daughter will be born, and you are playing the World Championships with your parents and Nour there to support you.’
“Then he asked me: ‘How exciting is this?’ Then he also got me to look at things from the perspective of myself in the future looking back to these moments and this time and it just put me in a completely different mental state and one, in which despite the fact things were not ideal, I was so positive and excited about what was happening.
“Mike is everything to me and I just can’t define him. He was my coach during my college years at Harvard and he is the person, apart from my family members and of course Nour, who has had the most influence on my life.
“He sees life in general in a better way and I am talking beyond squash, and we’ve stayed in touch since I graduated seven years ago, and he is always watching my matches. More importantly he is exceptional when it comes to the mental side of the game, and he just puts me in the right place. Hands down he is the person outside of my family who has had the most influence on my life.”
Yet as Farag admitted his advance to the final was far from assured as his attempts to regain peak form and mental clarity proved frustratingly elusive.
“At the start of the tournament, I have to be honest and say, I did not have the most confidence, but it built up from one match to another but the round of 16 was the win that gave me the most confidence.
“In that round I beat Miguel [Rodriguez] who is a great player and of course a former British Open champion and to beat him in three games was a great achievement for me. From then on things started to build.
“In the quarters against Diego [Elias] I wouldn’t say I had the most confidence, but I broke the game down in to two fundamentals. First my basic game and I know that if I do not have that and my length right, I don’t beat any of the top 10 guys and then the short game when I attack.
“My basic game was not in a good place, but it was there, and I just couldn’t get it to where I wanted it but against Miguel it started to come back to where it needed to be. Then I depended on that too much against Diego as my short game was not good enough and I did not have the confidence with it. But with Diego coming back from injury and not match fit I was able to get away with it.
“Then against Tarek [Momen] in the semi-final I would say he played better than me in four of the five games. Apart from the second game he was the better player for the entirety of the match and again credit to Mike Way, he kept ingraining in me every morning in our pre-match talk: ‘Ali you are the smartest player on the tour, and you are the strongest player on the tour and use that when you’re in it.’
“So, when I had to dig very deep against Tarek, I recalled these words and they helped me big time. “
When it came to the final itself and the staggering retrieval work combined with an increasingly accurate front court attack that diffused and disarmed ElShorbagy, the always modest Farag admitted he had been delighted to draw such high-praise from squash icon Barrington in recognition of his second coming.
“Coming from Jonah Barrington, someone who has been great for our sport and a mentor for Mohamed [ElShorbagy] for so many years it meant the world to read his comments on the PSA website interview.
“I do tend to agree with him about the latter part of the match being the best I have played; I am not totally sure it is the best I have played but for sure it was definitely up there.
“With it being the final of the World Championships and the middle of the match with me one game and 7-0 down against Mohamed, my greatest rival, it made me very proud.
“I had a game plan in mind when I stepped on court, and you could see parts of it in that opening game. Those long rallies where I am trying to move Mohamed out of position, which is probably the toughest job on the PSA World Tour! That was the plan, and I did it here and there in the first game but not consistently enough.
“Then in the second game I lost it a little and I was going short too early and was not building up the rallies consistently enough and you get punished when you do that against Mohamed.
“Then at 7-0 down, I had this call that went for me and perhaps Mohamed had gone a little complacent at being so far in front and maybe he thought the second game was already done, but in my mind, I said to myself: ‘Ali: You can’t go down 2-0 without a fight, this is the moment to try and build some momentum and to get a foothold and just maybe you can come back from 0-2 down.’
“Then things started to click again for me, and Mohamed got a little tense, and he made a couple of errors that got me back from 4-7 to 6-7, if my memory is correct, and those are all signs that you are back in it.
“Then he was 10-9 game ball up and I played that rally really well and got him out of position as was my plan and then took the game and it had the effect of giving me a lot of confidence and also taking a lot out of Mohamed.
“From that point on I just seemed to play better and better and sometimes I pulled things off and I didn’t know how, and I was just really happy to close out the win.”