Ramy Ashour is where he wants to be as he roars into Richmond for the 2013 Davenport North American Open. He is world champion, back at world number one and is the top seed for a week of explosive squash at the Westwood Club. Despite James Willstrop spending 11 months of 2012 as world number one, it was Ashour who was voted PSA player of the year after reaching the final of every tournament he entered, and finishing the year in style by winning his second World Open Championship in Qatar.
Ramy has reached the last four Richmond finals, beating Nick Matthew in 2009 but then losing to the Englishman two years running. Last year another Englishman stood in his way of glory as the tall, methodical James Willstrop put the squeeze on to stop the usual flow of winners from Ramy.
Willstrop admitted last year that he had suffered some kind of meltdown in the previous 12 months as the strain of travel and competition resulted in a stress overload.
Concerned observers felt the same thing was happening to Ramy. He admitted as much during a topsy-turvy British Open in London, when flashes of genius were often followed by lethargic spells laden with mistakes.
After one troubled performance, in which he scraped past Spaniard Borja Golan, Ashour admitted he was “mentally all over the place”. He revealed: “There are a lot of crazy things going on in my head. I am not quite sane. Maybe I’m too emotional.”
That visit to London illustrated his erratic performance patterns. During another confused, mistakestrewn match against fellow Egyptian Amr Shabana, the fourth game was shorter than the knock-up as he lost it 11-1.
Amazingly, he came back to dominate the fifth to set up the match of the tournament against Willstrop.
Ramy was on fire as he overcame Willstrop’s measured ball distribution with a succession of mesmerising winners. But the next day it was a different story again as he collapsed in the final against Matthew, hitting the tin four or five times in every game to gift a third British open title to his delighted rival. Pros will take any win, anywhere. They work so hard to get where they are that it must sometimes be a relief to get an easy win when your opponent fails to reach his expected standards.
Ramy’s discomort was obvious at one stage against Shabana as he sat at courtside between games, testing the grip of every racquet in his bag and discarding them with a flourish until he found one he liked. He explained: “I keep changing rackets because the grip is very important to me. If the grip is not right it stops me playing the way I want to. I need the grip to be just right. I don’t have a very good record with the racket companies.”
After losing to Matthew, he went walk-about. He was late for the presentation ceremony and had to be called back to courtside after the champion had received his third British Open trophy.
Following a long summer break, a resurgent Ramy returned to the court. He won the Australian Open and then claimed the US Open in October. He was clearly back to his imperious best.
Having beaten Matthew in the semi-finals and Gregory Gaultier in the final in Philadelphia, he claimed he had overcome his emotional turmoil.
In an interview with Squash Player magazine, I asked him if he had sought any help and he responded: “I just asked the demons kindly to go away. They listened. Themind is a powerful thing and it’s amazing how many things can be achieved when you put your head down and fully concentrate on something.”Ashour then went on to triumph in the Hong Kong Open, as a delegation from the IOC looked on, and crowned a spectacular comeback to top form by being crowned world champion in Qatar in December.
He beat Mohamed El Shorbagy in the final, after two Egyptian victories over England in the semi-finals, Ashour removing Matthew and Shorbagy shackling Willstrop, who is still looking for a first World Open title.
The revolution in his mind runs parallel to a revolution on the streets of Egypt, and Ashour is a passionate supporter of political change to help his fellow countrymen. A frequent visitor to Tahrir Square during demonstrations when he is back home in Cairo, Ashour added: “I love my country and will always be proud to represent it. We are
struggling at the moment and I feel for the less fortunate people as the revolution was basically raised to help them and now they are the ones suffering the most.
“Everyone who loves the country is only hoping for a better Egypt. I just hope that the people in power now care about the disadvantaged more than their own benefits.”
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