The Egyptlishmen: The Inside Story of the Elshorbagy Brothers who have Bridged Egyptian and English Squash

By James Zug
Photos by Steve Line/squashpics.com

The boy was shy. As a child, Mohamed Elshorbagy was aggressive on court. He went for outright nicks or it was a tin on every point. He played all-out at every practice. Every session was a pressure session. Even at a young age, he could solo practice for hours. He was the hungriest player any of his coaches had ever met. But off court, he was intensely shy. His younger brother, Marwan, was the extrovert, the gadabout, the kid who would stay up all night before the finals of the nationals. Mohamed didn’t say a word.

In early September 2006 the Al Ahram World Open was in Cairo, at the Pyramids at Giza, the seventh and last time they had staged a pro tournament there.

His mother took him to the tournament. Basma Elshorbagy always led the way. She ferried him to his lessons, she decided who was coaching him and how he was coached, she sat and watched each practice. At the Pyramids, it was round two. They watched Wael El Hindi overcome Nick Matthew 12-10 in the fifth, an epic match. Afterwards, she prodded Mohamed to go ask some of the players who had lost if they might have a hit with him. With his mother pushing him forward, Mohamed said fine. It was easier for him to overcome his shyness than to fight with his mother any longer.

Elshorbagy1Mohamed went to the first pro standing near the court. It could have been anyone. It was Joey Barrington. Earlier that week Barrington had won his first match in the qualies in a ninety-minute slugfest over Miguel Rodriguez and then in the next round retired in the fifth game against Tarek Momen (after squandering a match ball in the fourth) with a torn abductor. There was no way he could play. A foolish mistake by Mohamed. It took just a few seconds to figure it out. Mohamed almost walked away, but Barrington, a generous sort, asked the boy about his squash. Mohamed said that he had won the British Junior Open U15s back in January. Barrington’s eyebrows went up.

Oh, really?

And Gamal Awad had been my coach until he passed away.

Oh really?

They talked about schooling. Mohamed told Barrington he was at a French school in Alexandria but didn’t like it.

Well, Barrington said, my father teaches squash at a school in England. It is called Millfield.

Mohamed had never heard of it, but he did know about Joey’s famous father, Jonah Barrington, six- time winner of the British Open. Awad had trained with Barrington and had always talked about those days and how Barrington was a brilliant thinker about the game.

Standing near the court at the pyramid, the Englishman of the current generation and the Egyptian of the next exchanged cell phone numbers. The next day, the boy’s phone rang. Unknown number. Oh, the boy thought, maybe it’s Barrington and his groin is better and we can have a hit.

It was Wael El Hindi. I know you spoke to Joey, he said. Are you interested in going to Millfield?

Yes.

A flurry of phone calls ensued. El Hindi got on a call between Jonah Barrington and the boy’s parents. More calls. More discussion.

Ten days after the conversation at the Pyramids, Mohamed and Basma landed at Heathrow. They took a train to Castle Cary, the railway station near the school. On the platform when they got off the train was Jonah Barrington. They shook hands. Mohamed had a light, weak handshake. “When you shake hands with someone, show them you are strong,” Jonah said.

It was his first piece of advice. They had been together for ten seconds.

They got in Jonah’s car and drove. It was dusk. Millfield is in Somerset, in southwest England. It is rural: hedges, cattle, fields. There is absolutely nothing here, the boy thought to himself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Jonah took them to a hotel. He had booked two rooms, one for the son, one for the mother. They protested. There was no need. In Egyptian culture, the mother always stays in the same room as the son at tournaments. But this was England.

The next morning, Jonah picked them up and took them to the courts. Mohamed went on court with Joey, his groin now recovered. They played. Mohamed tried as hard as he could, wanting to make a good impression. Joey won 3-1. Mohamed was happy about getting the game. Joey was amazed. The boy played every point like it was his last.

The mother asked Jonah a hundred questions. They talked about scholarships and schooling. She wanted Mohamed to study engineering in college, like she did, so what about math and science? Boarding? What about fitness? And can Jonah work with him on court? Jonah had bad hips and didn’t walk well—can he really feed balls? Jonah went on court to feed, to prove he could do it.

Three days later they all went back to the Castle Cary train station. Mohamed cried as his mother got on the train to return to Heathrow and back to Egypt. It was the first time without her. “Everything will be ok,” Jonah Barrington said, hugging the shy, sad boy. “You will see. You will win the world juniors.”

Tournament squash is still played very much as it was a century ago. Players nervously twist and flex their body before heading on court. They bash the ball against the four walls with venom and then shake hands after the last point. It is still quiet enough during points that you can hear the squeak of a player’s shoes on the floor; in the gallery the only difference from 1913 is that you can feel the pulse of a neighbor’s phone set to vibrate mode.

The game has changed in many profound ways nonetheless, and one is that the top players are professionals and some have a profession’s worth of an entourage surrounding them: coaches, federation officials, agents, drivers, managers, physios, masseuses, training partners. Squash is decidedly second-tier, and in comparison to the world’s two biggest individual sports—golf and tennis—its pros don’t have the full compliment. (A top-ten player will annually gross, all-in, something in the mid six figures, but they have to hustle hard for that.) At tournaments even the best players bunk two to a room. Some help their roommates sort out laundry procedures in the basement of their hotel. They eat together, watch films together. After they lose in a tournament, they’ll train together and party together.

The Elshorbagy brothers, the Egyptian phenoms, are much more like amateur players from a hundred years ago. They are full-time students at the University of the West of England, a college in Bristol. They do not have a regular coach or physio or psychologist. (Hadrian Stiff coaches them when they are in Bristol). They are business majors; Mohamed is finishing his degree, with only a 30,000-word dissertation left. They pull all-nighters together, cramming for exams each semester. They live far away from the Egyptian Squash Federation and have never gone too long without a conflict with the federation. Their mother is in Alexandria, their father in Saudi Arabia. All they have is each other.

But in the long history of great squash families, fraternal bonds are often enough. The Khan dynasty of Pakistan, spilling out from Hashim and his brother Azam and his cousin Roshan, are the ultimate squash family: three generations, twenty British Opens. Since then, the three Martin siblings from Australia all reached at least number two in the world. And more recently the Ashour brothers from Egypt.

The Elshorbagy brothers are a rarity, though. They are rebels. Egyptian squash is notably insular. Unlike every other squash nation, Egypt rarely exports. Their players almost never base themselves abroad. They retreat to their castle-like clubs in Cairo. They sometimes don’t win abroad, either. Ahmed Barrada reached 2 in the world in 1998 but famously had trouble without a home-court audience: according to SquashInfo.com, he won just one PSA tournament outside Egypt. Amr Shabana, the greatest Egyptian of the first decade of this century and a four-time world champion, has never won a ranking tournament in England, including the British Open. (Notably, though, the Egyptians have no problem winning draws at the British Junior Open up in Sheffield.)

ElshorbagyThe two young men have the same look, square-shouldered, smoldering, brown-eyed short-cropped black hair, loose-limbed, lean and wolfish frames. They are flukes. They have the genetic good fortune of fast-twitch muscles, innate kinesthetic sense and superb hand-eye reflex coordination. They also had the luck to be born in the top squash nation in the world and the ability to abandon that world.

Mohamed started playing squash by accident. He was an introverted youngster, intimidated by many people. “S” sounds, when he talked to a girl, became “th” sounds; pretty soon he didn’t even try to talk to girls or to anyone. For hours during practices, he would be silent.

The Elshorbagys were raised in the old city district of Alexandria. When Mohamed was five, his parents took him to the Smouha Club. Cairo boasts about a dozen of these mammoth, all-in-one private clubs; Alexandria has two, Smouha and the Sporting Club. They are cities within the city. Smouha boasts tennis and basketball courts, swimming pools, fencing rooms, gardens, restaurants, tracks, ponds, a mosque and a giant soccer stadium for its second-division professional team. Smouha also has nine squash courts and a thriving junior program.

Basma, Mohamed’s mother, enrolled him in swimming at Smouha. She said it was a first impression, that they visited the swimming pool before any other facility on their tour. Mohamed remembered it as an Islamic matter. “It’s a religious tradition that Muslims should teach their children how to swim,” he said, “and being very conservative, she must have made the decision before we even watched the sport.” For five years he swam. He hated every minute of it. He found it boring. The only fun was when they went for a training run and Mohamed, normally apathetic in the water, easily outpaced all his team- mates. The coach told his mother, “your son is good at long distances, perhaps he should join the track team.” Mohamed laughed when he heard it, thinking: this coach was so naïve. My mother will decide what sport her sons are going to play, not a coach.

When Mohamed was eight, he went into the squash facility for the first time. It was relaxed outside at the pool, the sunlight bouncing off the walls, the slosh of the water. Inside, it was all aggression. The players ran hard, yelling at themselves, banging the walls, swinging with anger. A child walked off the court and screamed at someone in the gallery, blaming him for his loss. People were passionate. The little black ball, with two yellow dots ingrained at the top, seemed to be the cause of all the commotion.

Mohamed met his uncle at the courts. Salah Hassan used to play squash for fun. His parents and uncle talked with the coach at Smouha. Mohamed stood to the side and didn’t speak. His mother seemed excited and engaged in the conversation. It was a surprise. Perhaps Mohamed might escape from swimming? No, he would still swim but he could try squash on the side. The coach’s first assignment for Mohamed was to bounce the ball on his racquet ten times in a row. Until he could do that, he couldn’t get on the court. It took a couple of days. Mohamed didn’t understand the purpose of it. He complied without saying anything. He was like a soldier, head down, finish the task, don’t ask why. “Whenever I missed the bounce, the ball would squirt away and I would run to chase it down,” he said. “This eventually became a game for me that I enjoyed—the ball bouncing away and me chasing it, following it wherever it went. My parents looked at me with a smile. The passion I was showing, they couldn’t be unhappy with it. Those first few days, in which I never hit a single ball on the court, made me fall in love with squash. I was only trying to meet my coach’s expectation for ten consecutive bounces.”

A year passed. Mohamed still swam but also had squash lessons. He learned the rules. He showed up every day for practice, did his work carefully and went home. He never spoke to anyone. After a year, he entered his first tournament, the under-eleven draw at the Egyptian nationals in Cairo. He was nervous. What were the kids like from Cairo? Was I any good? Mohamed won his first two matches and then lost. He was hungry on the court, fighting for every shot.

It was a good result, winning two matches at the nationals. But still, Basma wouldn’t let him quit swimming. She heard about a famous coach that came occasionally to Smouha. It was Gamal Awad. He was a former No. 6 player in the world, an Egyptian national champion, a finalist in the British Open. One match against Jahangir Khan, at the Chichester Festival in England in March 1983, was one of the most iconic matches in sports history. Just four games, it lasted 166 minutes, almost three hours, still the record for pro squash (the first game alone went for seventy- one minutes; Awad won it 10-9 after being down 1-8). Awad was a legend.

Mohamed was not selected to train with him, not even close. Two wins at the nationals meant little at Smouha. But his mother talked and badgered and slipped little Mohamed into a single, forty-five minute session with Awad. Mohamed was embarrassed by his mother’s stubbornness yet also glad. Squash, like golf and tennis, has its stage parents, notoriously involved parents who push and complain and interfere; Basma was in the middle of the continuum. But variants of those traits are often instilled in their children and without that drive and stubbornness, that desire to win at all costs, Mohamed wouldn’t be the champion he was to become. Awad came off the court after the session and told Basma: “Madam, your son can be a champion one day.” Basma smiled. Mohamed overheard Awad’s comment and would never forget it.

A year later Mohamed went back to the Egyptian U11 nationals and won the tournament, beating a kid, Andrew Wagih, who would later become a serious rival. When they got back to Alexandria, his mother said, “Ok, now you can give up swimming.”

Elshorbagy2Mohamed and Marwan are the same and different. Mohamed was born in January 1991 and Marwan in July 1993. Not just those 931 days separate the two. Mohamed is tenancious, extremely determined. Marwan is more social. He works hard to maintain friendships. Mohamed ran away as a toddler, once in downtown Alexandria, once in their neighborhood. But he was shy. He didn’t want people hugging or kissing him. Marwan is a free spirit. He texts constantly (even when driving, until he dinged his mother’s car).

They are very close. As toddlers, they shared a bed and today they live together in Bristol. They train together. They have played each other in only a couple of official matches. In March 2012 they faced each other in the finals of the British university championships. Mohamed won in four, but it was an ugly match: blocking, cheating, fishing for lets. (In 2013 Mohamed won the same tournament again; Marwan came in fourth.) In October 2012 they squared off in the semis of a PSA event in Macao. Mohamed won 11-4, 10-12, 11-3, 11-9.

“Mohamed is like me in my life,” said Basma. “He is very straight. He took a lot of things from me—this is normal for the first son, the mother completely focuses on him, knows him, under her eyes twenty-four hours a day. The second one grows up gradually. You don’t mention everything to the second one.”

Marwan calls himself careless, insouciant. Inconsiderate. The night before the finals of the 2008 Egyptian junior nationals, Marwan stayed up all night with a few friends, including Zeyad Elshorafy. Marwan was in the finals of the U15s, Elshorafy in the U17s. They ordered fried chicken at 1:30am. They played the game “Dark Room” in which a person steps outside the room, everyone else hides and turns out the lights and then the person comes in and tries to find each one without getting hit in the face. Dark Room degenerated into a food fight. Mirrors and doors got broken, the air conditioning unit exploded. Marwan went on to win his match. (Elshorafy lost quickly in three that day, but he went on to Trinity where, as a freshman last winter, he clinched the last match in a 5-4 thriller over Harvard in the regular season and then won the 5th match in the finals of the nationals two weeks later to ensure Trinity regained the national title.)

They’ve fought with the Egyptian Federation, clashing personally with Amir Wagih over selection processes. When they weren’t chosen to play in the British Junior Open as a part of the Egyptian Federation’s squad, Basma took Mohamed alone, staying at a different hotel. One year, upon complications at clubs in Alexandria, they drove every weekend to Cairo to train there. An early seminal match for Mohamed was as an eleven-year-old in Cairo when hundreds of people were loudly rooting for an opponent.

Elshorbagy6One strand of gossip was that the boys were selfish, that they didn’t care about Egyptian squash, that they only worked hard in the individual tournament at the World Juniors, not the teams—this stemmed partially from Zurich in the summer of 2008. Mohamed won his first world championship. He battled through local hero Nicholas Mueller in a ferocious five-gamer and then, with his parents flying in from Dubai at the last minute, overcame Aamir Atlas Khan, nearly forty slots ahead of him in the PSA rankings, in a seventy-five- minute final. But, a few days later Mohamed lost to Khan in the team finals, allowing Pakistan to win the title. The loss was galling: 7-9, 9-2, 9-2, 9-1.

Marwan’s proudest moment might not be his individual honors but what happened in the summer of 2010 in Ecuador when he avenged his brother’s team loss. He lost in the semis of the individual event to the eventual winner Amr Khaled Khalifa in five (he won the third-place bronze), but in the teams, with the finals tied at 1-1, Marwan quieted the gossipers by winning.

It wasn’t easy. He was up 2-1, 10-8. A tense rally ensued, and Farhan Zaman, his opponent, tinned. Marwan’s teammates stormed into the court to celebrate. Then the referee said, “Play a let” because the ball had broken. Zaman won the first point after they warmed-up the new ball on a stroke. Marwan got very nervous, as the feeling that he was now going to lose the match seeped into his bloodstream. Another long rally and Zaman again tinned and this time the celebration was for real.

In January 2012 Marwan was in the finals of the British Junior Open Boys Under 19s, his last match in the prestigious event. He had battled through a five-gamer the evening before, against Mazen Hisham, but he felt good. It was his father’s birthday. During breakfast, his phone rang. It said “private number,” so Marwan didn’t know who it was. He answered and heard a laugh. It was Jonah Barrington, who always laughed when he started a phone conversation with Marwan. They talked about the upcoming match. Marwan said he had been nervous last night.

Jonah said, “Don’t be nervous. You are the world champion and everyone doesn’t like playing you.”

Marwan went back to his hotel room, tried to nap and then took a long hot shower. At the end of the shower, he finished with a blast of cold water, to wake his body up. He went to the Abbeydale Club, arriving towards the end of the BU17 final. During the GU19 final, Marwan went to warm up. Just when the girls’ final finished, he shook hands with Roshdy Mabrouk, his longtime coach from Smouha. While Mabrouk was talking, Marwan looked at his hands. They were full of blood. At first, he thought Mabrouk was bleeding and got it on his hands. Then he realized he had a bloody nose and it wouldn’t stop. He ran to the bathroom. Basma Elshorbagy got tissues, Mabrouk got ice and they ministered to Marwan who was lying down on the bathroom floor. They got the bleeding to stop.

They had to start the match. Marwan was scared that the bleeding would start again. Basma said, “If God wants you to go on court today and win, you will and if he doesn’t then I am sure it is for your own good.” Marwan relaxed and said, “leave it to God.”

He went on court, bewildered, nervous, unfocused. He checked his nose every thirty seconds during the warmup. Just before the first point, he went into the corner and scolded himself: “You are fine. Start to focus on the match.” He wanted to win badly, not only to get his name on the Drysdale Cup, the world’s oldest junior squash trophy, but because of his opponent, his fellow countryman Mohamed Abouelghar. He had beaten Abouelghar in the finals of the World Juniors the previous July. But it was a hollow win, some said, since Abouelghar had just survived a five- game semi (in seventy minutes beating top seed Amr Khaled Khalifa 11-9 in the fifth) and people said that he was tired. This time, Marwan had the five-game semi (Abouelghar had a four-game semi), so there wouldn’t be any excuses.

Normally Marwan played a slow, finesse game against Abouelghar. This time, perhaps from the ragged tension of the nose-bleed, he blew the doors off. He played every point like it was 10-10 in the fifth. He went very fast and won the first two games quickly, 3 and 2, and then the third 11-7.

“Afterwards, I heard people saying that Abouelghar wasn’t playing well,” Marwan later said, “that it wasn’t his day, that he was making a lot of unforced errors. I just smiled and looked at them and said, ‘Yes, it was just a bad day for him.’”

The Elshorbagy parents met at university in 1987 as engineering students. After working for a year, Basma retired once she and Hossam married. “Everyone around me advised me not to leave my work,” she said, “but there is something in my character that I like to concentrate on one thing. To have a high percentage of success, you have to concentrate on one thing.” At the same time, she began wearing the hijab. “My father didn’t want me to wear this. He had a lot of foreigners as friends from his work and didn’t like it.” Hossam has worked abroad for much of his career, lately in Saudi Arabia.

Millfield was not the oddest destination for the Elshorbagys. A co-ed boarding school founded in 1935, it is an athletic powerhouse that uses scholarships and recruiting to field some of the best interscholastic teams in Great Britain. Its field hockey team produces international players, and the swimming program is high-powered, with two pools, a coach brought in from Australia, an alum in every Olympic Game since 1968. In the mid-1990s Jonah Barrington and Ian Thomas came to Millfield and revitalized its squash program. Siyoli Waters came from South Africa, Peter Creed from Wales and Petr Martin from the Czech Republic. Wael El Hindi trained there for awhile.

The brothers had a pretty unusual time at Millfield. Marwan clammed up when he came, a year after Mohamed. His English wasn’t so good and he struggled to make friends and to make progress in his studies. Basma got a place near the school and the boys lived with her instead of in the boarding houses. On the court, though, they thrived. “Mohamed came in with unadulterated power and unbelievably soft hands,” said Ian Thomas. “He had the extremes but could he knit them together?” Mohamed spent hours solo practicing. His training was intense. “They were ferocious sessions,” said Joey Barrington. “Mohamed would fight very hard for everything, attacking tooth- and-nail. It was great training for me but in the end it was stressful to face that every day.”

Despite the training, Mohamed was famous for avoiding court sprints—he’d always go to the toilet or go talk to Jonah—ghosting with other players or circuits. Marwan was much more willing to work with other players, to teach beginners, to hit with anyone. Mohamed had trouble adapting to the team aspect. Aditya Jagtap from India came to Millfield much like the Elshorbagys, with his mother (the two families even discussed moving in together). Mohamed decided he didn’t like Jagtap. He avoided getting on court with him and when he did, he would go for outright nicks each time. There was a scene, tears, yelling. Jonah asked Mohamed why he was being mean to Jagtap. “He’s my brother’s competition,” he said.

Marwan was the weaker physically but had the better squash mind. Mohamed, though, was like a sponge, sucking up information, absorbing everything. Mohamed was subtle and frugal, Marwan less able to avoid confrontation. Both were considered rough customers on court before moving to Millfield, emotional and willing to do anything to win. Jonah quickly cleaned up their acts. “Be careful of your reputation,” he told the boys.

Mohamed won a second world junior title in India in 2009, beating Ivan Yuen of Malaysia in the finals 3-0 (11-2 in the third). His strongest memory of that second title was the quarterfinals against Raphael Kandra of Germany. It was 1-1 and in the third he was down 6-8 and struggling. “I was so nervous, defending my title,” Mohamed said. “I was 17 in the world at the time, so I felt a lot of pressure. I remember watching Ramy in New Zealand years before when he was trying to win his second title, how he didn’t sleep, how stressed he was, and I was the same way and it came out in the Kandra match.” He pulled it out in four. He also collected a total of five British Junior Open titles (the BU15 in 2006, the BU17 in 2007, and the BU19 in 2008, 2009 and 2010), tied for the best boys BJO haul in history.

He had his professional breakthrough at the 2008 World Open in Manchester. A la McEnroe at the 1978 Wimbledon, Mohamed roared through qualifying and reached the quarterfinals, upsetting Thierry Lincou in the process. In 2011 he clinched the deciding match in the semis of the World Teams against France in a tense, five-gamer. He also played in a tournament in Reunion Island, losing to Thierry Lincou 17-15 in the fifth in a two-hour sweat-fest. In London he had meals with Amr Shabana and other Egyptian squash elders. He was no longer the rebel.

In fact, he was asked by Andrew Shelley at the World Squash Federation to join Nicol David on ambassadorial tours of under-developed squash nations. He has done two so far: Malawi and Namibia in June 2012 and Panama and Venezuela in June-July 2013. “Andrew Shelley has seen so many great squash players along his life and seen so many matches and has a lot of experience so I like to ask him a lot of questions and just sit there and listen and learn,” Mohamed said. “I never knew Nicol David as a person before those two trips; only knew her as the great squash player but, after my first trip with her, I found out that she is so down to earth and she is such a role model off court too. I keep watching her and learning from her and seeing how she deals with the press and how she talks in the interviews. To be honest I have learned from the best. I do believe she is the greatest squash ambassador that ever came in the squash history so I call myself lucky that I was chosen to be representing it with her. But the best thing about these tours is meeting these kids. They always look inspired and excited. As a squash player you like to see something like this—you feel like your job is being done well.”

In December 2012 Mohamed had a magical run in the World Champion- ships. When he saw the draw when he was in Macao, he couldn’t fall asleep, he was so excited. On the top half of the draw there were men with a total of eleven World Open final appearances; on his side, the bottom half, just two appearances. In the quarters, he overcame Karim Darwish, 3-0 (but each game was intensely close); in the semis, he outlasted James Willstrop 11-9, 9-11, 14-12, 4-11, 11-8 in two hours of gripping squash. Willstrop had beaten him six straight times but Mohamed patiently hung with him. Mohamed was down 6-3 in the fifth, but managed to pull it out. He was inundated with phone calls and texts. Gregory Gaultier saw him after the match, hunched over his phone, fingers flying, and gave advice that only a world championship finalist can give: “Turn off your phone, close down the communications.”

In the finals—it was Basma’s birthday—he was down 2-1 and came back to push it to five. In the last game he was down 5-2, climbed back to 7-all and then was up 8-7, just three points away from victory and a world championship at the age of twenty-one. But he lost the next four points.

The most sublime moment of the match, and of Mohamed’s career thus far, came at 9-all in the fourth. Incredible gets, dives, shots—punctuated with a de- liberate between-the-legs shot from the back wall by Mohamed. He might have lost the match, but in that one special point he combined English patience with Egyptian flair and instantly became a star. The video of the point, up on YouTube, has been viewed over 200,000 times, more than any other squash point.

“I saw Ramy’s face after that point,” said Amr Shabana, “and I could see that he looked the way I looked five, six years ago, when I was on top and Ramy was coming up, the young upstart. I could see the pressure, the stress that Mohamed was putting him under.”

“I have watched that point and most of the match a lot since then,” Mohamed said a few months ago, “but I turn it off in the fifth. I can’t bear to watch the last four points.”

Marwan’s rise up the rankings has not been as meteoric. He won two BJO titles (BU17 in 2010 and BU19 in 2012). He won his first pro tournament, in Canada in April, but at times has struggled. In January at the Tournament of Champions, he blew a big lead in the first round of the qualies against Yasir Butt of Pakistan. Marwan, dressed entirely in black, looked like a ninja for the first hour. He was up 5-0 in the third, with a 2-0 lead. Then he faltered; and then in the fifth he was up 7-2 and 8-3 and again couldn’t close the door. He was rushing, snapping off boasts that exposed his weak movement. In Colombia over the summer he came back from a 0-2 deficit to push Peter Barker to 11-9 in the fifth. It was a loss that was almost as good as a win. He is now firmly ranked in the top thirty in the world, making the Elshorbagys the best-ranked sibling duo at the moment.

Professional squash—played on six continents, with millions of dollars at stake—is a merciless winnower of talent. The margin between a champion and a first-round loser can be infinitesimal. The ball can clip the top of the tin, the thin red line that signifies that a shot is no longer a beautiful winner but an error, a mistake, a lost point.

A life decision, in hindsight, is almost always like that: a slight variation, a different response and  everything comes out differently. There are a million roads not taken.

The difference for the Elshorbagys might have  been that conversation at the Pyramids with  Joey Barrington.

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