Squash world No 1 Nouran Gohar has a favourite quote – “everything in life that you want to achieve has a price”.
The 25-year-old Egyptian has been an overwhelming force on the PSA Tour for the past two seasons, reaching an astonishing 21 finals from 24 tournaments contested since the start of her 2021-2022 campaign.
She’s currently enjoying her 86th week – and 12th in a row – at the top of the world rankings and is set to kick off her 2023-24 term at the newly-introduced Paris Squash platinum tournament, which will be staged in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower at the Palais de Tokyo starting this Sunday.
Bringing an unrelenting physicality to the game, and showcasing supreme mental strength that allows her to deliver at pretty much every event she takes part in, Gohar has managed to put together one of the most dominant two-season stretch of results across all of sport.
And while she enters her new campaign brimming with confidence, she is also quick to note how much of a toll that kind of consistency can take, both on her body, and on her mind.
“What people say is true, being in the top is lonely, you can feel very lonely some days and you can feel very exhausted, not just physically, but also mentally,” Gohar told The National from her home in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband – professional fencer and recent World Championship bronze medallist Ziad Elsissy.
“Mentally it takes a lot, a lot, a lot. You’re going to be burnt out, that’s something that’s going to happen no matter what. But you need to learn when to stop, or what to do to refresh your mind. And figure out a balance. Mentally it’s very demanding.”
‘Learning’ has been a key ingredient to Gohar’s ascent.
The Cairene exploded on to the international squash scene from her early teen years and by 19, was ranked No 2 in the world, while also pursuing a construction engineering degree at the American University in Cairo.
Straight out of high school, Gohar was offered multiple athletic scholarships from reputable schools in the US, like Harvard and UPenn, but she opted for a gap year during which she played professionally and shot to No 8 in the world before getting into university.
Eventually Gohar set her heart on competing and going to college at home at the same time, knowing that Cairo was where
Almost everyone was against her decision to do both, and even her coach at the time threatened to stop working with her if she went to university. But a defiant Gohar was adamant she could handle it.
“I wanted to prove a point because everyone kept saying that, ‘If you want to be a professional squash player, you can only be a professional squash player’. And that was something that was driving me crazy,” she recalls.
“I’m not defined as a squash player, I can be more than that.
“At the time I told my mum, ‘I’m going to graduate while being world No 1’, which happened actually. I graduated December 2020, and July 2020 I was world No 1.”
That’s not to say the three-and-a-half-year period between getting to No 2 and No 1 in the world wasn’t challenging. Things got so tough at some points that Gohar considered taking a break from squash or quitting altogether.
“It was horrible,” Gohar says with a laugh, reflecting on her journey from No 2 in 2017 to the top three years later.
“When I reached world No 2, I was so, so young. I was just like a happy kid. I go beat anyone in front of me and the older players are scared of me and there was no pressure whatsoever. I’m going on court and I just want to play.”
There were expectations from the outside with everyone tipping Gohar to be the next big superstar of the sport but she wasn’t paying much attention to any of that.
“Then suddenly I started losing to people I shouldn’t be losing to,” she says. “It’s like you were on a cloud and suddenly reality hits.
“It was hard for me at the time to accept losing to begin with. What is losing? Why would I lose?”
In retrospect, Gohar realises she was simply too young at the time and lacked experience. She remembers dropping from No 2 to No 8 in the world halfway through her university years and in the process, she lost her passion for the sport.
“I hit rock bottom in one of the years, I wasn’t enjoying squash at all,” she admits. “It was hard. But looking back at it, I think that’s what made me the person I am today.
“I learnt so, so much during those years, mainly how to appreciate what I have. Because at that time I didn’t know how big what I have was. I was like, ‘I’m world No 2, whatever’. But during those three years, I would have died to clinch back that spot.”
Some great mentorship from the legendary Amr Shabana during the 2018 World Team Championship helped Gohar gain perspective and she ended up playing an important role in helping Egypt defeat England in the final. It proved a major turning point for the Cairo-native.
She lost in the US Open first round after that but a year later, she walked away from the very same tournament as a champion. She learnt to focus on making little improvements every day and recaptured her love for squash.
When Gohar clinched the top ranking for the first time in 2020, at the age of 22, she lost it fairly quickly but this time she did not panic. She had experience under her belt now.
“The first time I became world No 1, I felt like the place was too big for me, it’s like trying on clothes that are too big and don’t fit,” she says.
“But then I became world No 1 again a year later and that’s when actually I felt like I earned it. I had won four Platinum events in a row, so I felt like, ‘That’s my place right now’. I’ve proven more than once that I belong to this place.”
She may feel like she belongs but accepting defeat remains a work in progress for Gohar. Despite her incredible results this past season, her losses in the finals of the World Championship and the British Open still leave a bitter taste in her mouth.
“Of course it’s good that you reached a final but losing the final in itself is hard. I mean we’ve seen it with Ons [Jabeur] in the Wimbledon final, it’s heartbreaking in a way,” she says.
“You were that close to lift the title and then you feel like everything you’ve done was for nothing in the end. So I think what I learnt is how to deal with this feeling actually and how to manage it. Obviously it’s easier said than done, sometimes I cannot do it, I just get depressed.
“What I also learnt is that you can give yourself a day where you can feel upset and mope around and get all the emotions out, but you need to get up and find solutions.
“Even if you’re not feeling like doing it, just fake it ‘til you make it. Fake that you’re fine and you’re going to get up and do this and do that and after a while, things get easier.”
When she lost to Nour El Sherbini in the World Championship final for a third straight year in May, Gohar received a text from someone close to her urging her to put the disappointment behind her and focus on finishing the season on a high. She took that advice to heart and went on to reclaim the top ranking and won her last two events of the season.
In her quest to stay hungry and motivated in the sport, Gohar draws inspiration from tennis world No 1 Iga Swiatek, who at 22 is already a four-time Grand Slam champion.
“Iga for me is so consistent, she goes on court, wins a match, takes her bag, walks off court, and it’s like nothing happened,” said Gohar.
“And the problem is, the glory of winning your first platinum event or Grand Slam is amazing. The first time I won a Platinum event was Hong Kong, I was 18 years old, I was world No 9 or something; the glory of it was huge.
“It’s not the same glory now, but you need to find this glory one way or another. People are not going to make you feel like it’s something big but you need to make it big for yourself and remind yourself.
“I feel it’s the same with Iga. I feel like the first time she won a Grand Slam it was big and after that it’s expected.”
Gohar has been the highest-earning squash player over the past two seasons and while she knows she is playing her part in boosting women’s sport in the Arab world, she gives full credit to those who have come before her to pave the way for this current generation.
Raneem El Welily was the first Egyptian woman to earn the top rank in squash, and when she retired, she personally called Gohar to inform her of her decision and let her know she was going to be the next top-ranked player.
Gohar is full of admiration for El Welily, along with tennis duo, Tunisian top-five star Jabeur and Egyptian pioneer Mayar Sherif.
“The idea of breaking boundaries, especially for Arab women – I’ve seen it with Raneem growing up. It wasn’t a thing for an Arab woman to play professionally and travel the world and that’s her profession – 10, 15 years ago it wasn’t a thing, and now it’s completely normal, and that’s a huge impact these women have had,” said Gohar.
“Raneem is the reason why me, and the new generation coming up, are doing what we’re doing right now. When you have a role model just in front of you doing this, something within you clicks and you start thinking, ‘Why not?’
“And it was hard for them, because they didn’t even have the example before them. They are the ones who made the example and all credit to them to be honest.”
Gohar also notes how her peers have helped her step up her game, particularly seven-time world champion El Sherbini, who leads their head-to-head 19-8.
“I think especially the year of 2022, when I grabbed the No 1 spot from Nour El Sherbini at that time, it was an awesome rivalry between me and her. There were several classics that year,” says Gohar.
“They were talking about us as if we’re like Nadal and Federer of the game, our matches were classics. I think the rivalry with Nour is something that brought the best out of me. We’re pushing each other to reach another level. And that’s what actually made us separate ourselves a bit from the other players.”
World No 3 Hania El Hammamy is now also in the mix and she and Gohar have gone through some brutal battles, including a marathon five-game championship match at the PSA World Tour Finals to close out the 2022-2023 season.
In a sport that offers equal prize money for men and women at all the big events, Gohar is proud of the fact she and her rivals are taking squash to new heights.
“The women’s game right now has reached a level it has never reached before, in terms of intensity, in terms of physicality, even the duration of matches. I think in the last tournament I’ve played, Hania and I played the longest match in the history of the women’s game, which was 130 minutes, and I think during the tournament itself there wasn’t a men’s match that hit 130 minutes,” she says.
“It proves that we have it in us and we should be treated equally. We train the same amount, in terms of squash, in terms of fitness. Obviously we don’t have the same strength but we have other abilities and the amount of effort that we put in is exactly the same, so why not be equal?”
The World Championship remains the one big title that has eluded Gohar so far and while it is an obvious big goal for her, she is trying her hardest not to make it an obsession.
“Obviously the World Championship I’d die to get, but putting so much pressure on that will not help me to get it,” she adds.
With a new squash season upon us, Gohar is excited to hit a new venue and experience the Paris event, which is the first platinum tournament to take place in France since 1994.
“It’s so important for the exposure of squash in general. Just like tennis has Roland Garros, this could be the Roland Garros of squash, which is huge for the sport,” she said.