This edition of El Gouna has been a challenging one at soooo many levels. You as readers/viewers are maybe not aware of the backstage adventures the PSA Team, the Players, the Officials and the IEvents team have lived this week to entertain you…
We had sublime moments, not that great moments, and moments that could have been catastrophic but Elhamdoulillah it all went eventually back to a normal night at the office: so fasten your seat belts and enjoy the Gouna 2021 Ride…
What’s the ‘Bubble’
It’s a safe zone where the players are protected as much as possible from COVID contagion. Which means that they can only train and share cabs with their future opponent. We all have our breakfast/meals on separate tables, have our temperature checked at breakfast and in the evenings when getting back into the hotel, we don’t greet each other, or hug, we avoid to be too close to each other at all times. Fun.
No gym, no indoor swimming pool, although they were allowed to the beach as long as they were keeping their distance from others – but with the heat, most of the players preferred to stay away from the sun, locked in their rooms as they couldn’t do anything else!
Of course, most of us in the bubble were restricted to the bubble zone, and even food delivery was sometimes a bit of a challenge – as if you remember my first piece, no room service in the hotel we were in.
But they were two exceptions to that “don’t get out of the bubble or you’re out for good”. The Refs and your servant.
The refs, well, because they have to. And me, well, because to watch a match, the best place is behind the backwall, not only to watch the matches but also to feel the event pulse. Good or bad…
That was when we were on the glass court of course, as for the earlier rounds, we were in the Squash Complex ‘Aquarium’, players, officials, a few media tested, one or two cleaners, and myself.
The poor spectators/families/coaches were banned outside, while we were spread around the plugs at the top of the stairs (Tim Garner on the right side, me on the left, and everybody else sharing the two middle ones!)
Needless to say that when we were doing both complex and glass, I had to be extra careful all the time I was out in the VIP area. Never touched anybody, cleaning hands, phones, laptop, constantly with gel. Fun. NOT.
I got out of the Bubble from the Quarters onwards.
I have to say I didn’t do anything much different, except hugging Ramy – sue me – while he was rehearsing his song on the second quarters night, and Raneem who was there with Shahir to support husband Tarek.
Tim Garner, in charge with Lee Beachill to keep us safe, had asked me quite logically to still do the testing after I got out of the Bubble as I was talking to the players quite close with my recorder and used the Bubble lavatories. But not once did I go to the Public Area or out of the VIP area where most of the people were wearing masks at all times.
I still think the funniest moment of them all was having PSA COO Lee Beachill having to explain to all of us one after the other how to do self COVID testing. I didn’t know Lee had so much patience and pedagogy in him…
Loved London Cabs
That is probably one of the best ideas Promoter and ‘Chef d’Orchestre’ Amr Mansi ever had to help us all to relax and feel safe: London Cabs. We already had them in the Egyptian Open back in October 2020, and at the time, I wrote it gave us a ‘Qatar feel’…
As in, you step out of the hotel/venue, and someone takes you where you need to go. No schedule, no waiting, comfy, professional and courteous. What’s not to like?
It was available to all the people that were in the Bubble.
Loved Raneem & Shahir
Sue me, I’m a sucker for PSABabies. They are like the continuity we all love to see in our sport, with the new generation bringing new blood and hopes that the future will be as bright as the present…
And in comes Raneem, with little Shahir, to support Daddy Tarek Momen.
At first, Raneem was not that keen to have her little boy being photographed. But a baby of the Squash Royal Couple, well, it was like waving a red towel to a photographic bull! All the cameras went for the adorable Shahir, and Raneem went ‘oh well’…
Loved Wild Card Aly Abou Eleinen
Not only because he gave Youssef Soliman a good run for his prize money, what a match, with incredible squash and full of drama, but also because 10 years ago, Mansi chose him to pull the names of the players to do the Gouna Draw.
And this time round, he was playing in that same draw. Mash’Allah…
Loved the Masters
It was the 4th edition of that sought after event, where normally a lot of tourists come to join watching squash with playing it. Handle as usual “de main de maître” – by the Masters of the Masters, Tamer Mamdouh.
Note that for the first time, ‘Tommy’ was refereeing in the first round of the event, and we didn’t hear any screaming from the players, so he must have been doing not too bad..
Back to the Masters, this year, still a lot of participants, even if tourism is not that easy at the moment for countries like France or England, but nevertheless 29 players from 8 countries joined in from Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Romania, Germany, Poland, Spain and of course Egypt.
Didn’t love Injuries, slippery floor and glasswall breaks
Was Gouna a plain quiet sailing cruise. Fork no. We had it all, and it’s crucial to stress how amazing the response to contrary elements PSA, IEvents Team and Egypt knowhow allowed the event to just move ahead. ‘The show must go on’. And it certainly did.
First injuries: Sarah-Jane Perry had a funny event this time round. After a bye against Mayar Hany – who had COVID 3 weeks ago who played a 5 setter against Anna Serme but just couldn’t play (quite understandably) the next round – SJ’s match against best mate Alison Waters was moved from the Complex to the Glasscourt that same evening as Nour’s opponent, Yathreb Adel – who just lost her mum from COVID in very painful circumstances, had also a very bad back injury and just couldn’t perform that day.
But as the English started their match, Alison slipped and injured her leg. SJ was now in the quarters against Nour, well, they were both pretty well rested for that one…
THAT Quarters night…
It didn’t EXACTLY go as smoothly as one would have expected to be honest.
As SJ kept mentioning to the ref that she was slipping, the ref didn’t seem to realise that the English “was never good at ice-skating,” as she commented at the end of the match.
And SJ was not complaining for nothing. As Mohamed Shorbagy and Joel Makin stepped on court, they blankly refused to play as the court was unplayable (too humid, hence slippery and dangerous).
So, after a few attempts to dry the court, off we went (the players, the ref Thomas, Lee Beachill, Nazih from IEvents, and your servant) to the Complex.
Hat to everybody who made it happen, but 78m later exactly (hence the real time of the match being 80m, not 158), Mohamed and Joel were hitting the first rally.
As the girls started about the same time, on the glass court, I was following the match in front of me while keeping an eye on the PSAscoreboard to see how Hania and Camille were doing.
At the end of the match, I recorded Mohamed and Joel’s quotes, rushed back to the venue thanks to Nazih who had kept a cab for me, and as I arrived at the end of the Hania/Cam match, asked the main sponsor CIB CEO Mr Abaza to make the report for me. As you do.
And kindly enough, he did. God bless him.
And then the last match, Fares/Mostafa, 123m.
Of course, it had to be. Which started at something like past 11pm.
You think that was tough enough. Naaaaa, let’s add a bit more drama to the whole thing with nearly lost a ref!
As at the end of the first game, 30m easy peasy, as Fares is asking for a review of what was going to be the last point of the opener, we nearly lost the video ref Ralf who had fallen during a match on a previous day and had actually broken two ribs, basically passing out in the chair while officiating…
Emergency services were called, ambulance arrived, the whole shabam! Eventually, poor Ralf was rushed to hospital, and Thomas had to sit in the hot seat, literally! Don’t worry, he is now fine and got back home safely, only one night in hospital and plenty of painkillers.
I remember we finished at something like 12.30am. And I started the reports on the two men’s matches (Mohamed and Fares) at 1.32pm. When I went for the COVID testing that morning, I actually fell asleep on the sofa waiting for the test result to appear on the little plastic thingy….
And of course, the BackWall Glass had to break
So, if you thought that the quarters night for fun, wait for the semis…
Morning starts with Amr Mansi calling Ashraf Hanafi – you heard of him a lot, promoter, coach, Squash Director of Blackball, consultant and commentator for ONTIME sports, he also builds courts. And in particular, the Gouna complex’s.
Problem was they realised that morning that one of the panels of the backwall was broken. Several avenues were explored, but nothing was found suitable. Until Ashraf proposed that one of the glass panels of the Complex would be taken out of the complex, brought to the Glasscourt to be used to replace the broken one.
The dimensions were not perfect (about 30cm too long each side), about 1 cm too high but that would have to do. Imagine, in scorching hot temperature (40° in the shade, and there are none of that at the glass), installing the new panel that had to be unscrewed and carried out of the Complex and brought to the venue without God Forbid breaking it!
So it was written. And so it was done.
The challenge was immense. And Ashraf, along with Mansi’s team, were able to save the court, the day and the event.
For which he got an official thanks for the Egyptian Squash Federation President Mr Assem Khalifa.
Loved the return of
the ‘Prodigal Sons’
It was the great return for four Egyptians Symbols this event.
First, CIB Karim Abdel Gawad, who was suffered a terrible foot injury since February 2020, and had only been able to train 21 days in all that period. Seeing him on court with Paul Coll reminded us why we love watching him so match – Mohamed ElShorbagy claiming on twitter to be his biggest fan, corrected immediately by my tweet stating that I was.
Won or lost, it didn’t matter.
You are the most talented player of our generation by far @karimabdelgawad ! Playing against you all my life has always been one of the most enjoyable matches I have been part of. I will always be a fan of your squash and I hope you get healthy soon because we need you on tour!
— Mohamed ElShorbagy (@MoElshorbagy) May 25, 2021
The smile on his face was proof enough the only victory he cared about was the one against pain and that recurring injury.
Second, Mohamed ElShorbagy, who for administrative reasons, hadn’t been playing in Egypt recently, and was back to whoaaaaa us with his squash once again. His final match against Paul Coll was a masterclass in tactics and hunger, and has now won him the nickname “The Boss”.
Then, Hisham Ashour, who spent several years in the States, and that we are so happy to have back in Egypt. He emceed the last days with the extraordinary beautiful famous Lebanese sport presenter Nathalie Mamo. In passing before the arrival of Nathalie and Hisham, a former squash player did an superb job as MC, Merhan Amr.
It was so nice to have Hisham’s energy back in Egypt and we hope his new Academy with brother Ramy will be successful.
And that takes us to our last and probably most emotional of returns: the Artist Ramy Ashour was back in Gouna, to sing his latest song about how important Sports Champions are important in a country’s life and collective memory.
The boy was as scared to perform as a singer than he was to play his matches. The same fear not to perform at his best, not to succeed to entertain. But trust me, he didn’t fail. He sang that song especially written for the event twice, after the women’s final, then at the end of the men’s.
The crowd loved him, immensely – were we ever in doubt they wouldn’t – but the best moment was when old rival Mohamed ElShorbagy came to salute him as he was singing. For us who have lived their fierce rivalry, it was a purely magical moment.
“Actually, I called Ramy when I couldn’t play on the Tour”, confessed Mohamed. “He helped me a lot dealing with the long absence away from competition. And I love his song so much. I was listening constantly when I came back from Gouna.”
They are moments where time stops. That was one of those moments. Thank you my little ones.
But we adored Paul Coll
The last words will have to come from New Zealander Paul Coll, who I’m sure you know by now, lost in the final against Mohamed ElShorbagy.
If a few people around the squash world whinge that the Egyptian domination is damaging the sport – I KID YOU NOT – Paul was clear: Egypt and their sponsors saved Squash (listen at 0.37”).
— Squash New Zealand (@squashnz) May 28, 2021
Hear hear. So thanks to the amazing promoters like Amr Mansi for IEvents, Ashraf Hanafi & Mohamed Raef for Black Ball, Karim Darwish for Wadi Degla, all the sponsors present in Gouna with a huge thanks to Orascom and the Sawiris Brothers who years ago had the instinct, courage and flair to trust that young player out of nowhere called Amr Mansi. Nothing would have been possible without all of you.
Nothing possible with the strong support of the Minister of Youth and Sports of course, Mr Ashraf Sobhy, the Egyptian Tourism Board who has been carrying the El Gouna Squash Open torch from the start, and without the help of the Egyptian Squash Federation and his president in particular.
But also and especially our own GodFather, Mr Hussein Abaza, with the unconditional support of the CIB Board, whose kindness, generosity and vision for our sport has allowed Squash to keep existing throughout these extraordinary challenging times.
Merci to you all, and Chapeau. See you next year Insh’Allah.