Ali Farag: Egyptian squash star on a learning curve balancing family life and career

In an exclusive interview with 'The National', the world No 2 discusses life as a new father, being married to a fellow squash star, and taking a stand in a viral video

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Shortly before his British Open last-16 clash against familiar foe Karim Abdel Gawad on Wednesday, squash world No 2 Ali Farag was on dad duty, taking care of his nine-month-old daughter Farida while his wife, former world No 3 Nour El Tayeb, was taking a much-needed nap.

A few hours later, Farag gave a sigh of relief as he ended a three-match losing streak to Abdel Gawad – a former world champion – and booked himself a spot in the quarter-finals at a tournament that is considered the “Wimbledon of squash” and one the Egyptian has never won before.

“Probably I’m luckier than any other player on tour because it relieved my mind off of my match. I was very nervous, I didn’t want to think of my match and she wanted to go to sleep, I told Nour, ‘Let me do that, I just want to forget about my match and just spend some time with Farida’,” Farag said on Wednesday.

“It’s been a relief really and for tomorrow hopefully I’ll be taking care of Farida until Nour hopefully does well in her match and then we go again on quarters day.”

Farag and El Tayeb travelled with baby Farida to Hull for the British Open this week without any supporting entourage in tow and they’ve so far managed to pull off a remarkable balancing act between parenting and competing.

El Tayeb returned to the squash tour a mere five months after giving birth last year and this tournament is just the fifth in her comeback. She won her opener in Hull on Tuesday and joined her husband in the last-eight stage after defeating Nele Gilis on Thursday.

Farag is in awe of his wife and the effort she puts in every day, at home and on court.

“It does take a lot of hard work,” two-time world champion Farag told The National in an interview last week. “I’d like to take to some credit but to be honest, 90 per cent is being done by Nour, which is, I’m telling you it’s very, very inspiring.”

El Tayeb, who is already up to No 68 in the world, is the only mother currently competing at the highest level in professional squash.

Unlike other sports like tennis or football that have witnessed several players make successful returns from maternity leave, squash has few examples for El Tayeb to follow. But Farag believes his wife will provide ample inspiration for other women on tour who would have never considered stepping away mid-career to have a baby.

“I think Nour will have an impact because she is a very charismatic character on tour, she does have a fan-base, so I think when people see her doing this," he said. "I think they can see her and think they too can have a child in the future and come back and that it’s doable.

“It does take a village of course and it requires a husband that can appreciate this and not have the kind of ego where he wants to be the centre of the house.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am a man with lots of traditional values but I’m trying to be particularly understanding in this area with Nour. I do think Nour will make a difference in how women are approaching their careers in squash.”

Positive message to Egyptian society

Farag and El Tayeb made history in 2017 when they won their respective titles at the US Open, becoming the first married couple to triumph at the same major sporting event on the same day.

The reaction from the Egyptian public was one of admiration, especially seeing how Farag supported his wife in pursuing her dreams – something not necessarily common in a typical Egyptian household.

Farag admitted he is a work in progress when it comes to his understanding of gender roles that have been embedded in him from a young age.

"There is a long way to go to give women the rights they deserve," he said. "That is without a doubt. But also people are taking it to the other end of the spectrum, to the extreme. I don’t know where I stand yet, I am learning every day with Nour."

He explained that his 18-year-old self probably wouldn’t have imagined his wife would be a mother as well as a full-time professional squash player, but his views have evolved and he is behind El Tayeb’s ambitions of trying to become a world champion and reach No 1 in the world.

“What I’ve started sensing the older I got is that as much as having children and raising them is satisfying, a woman has ambitions and she wants to achieve in a way or another,” he said. “Nour today is a squash player, if she wants to quit and become a coach, or a sports administrator, or wants to start her own business, whatever it is, as a man I need to support her.”

Taking a stand

Farag, a Harvard graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, is both eloquent and outspoken.

The Cairene, who soon turns 30, recently grabbed headlines for a heartfelt speech he gave after winning the Optasia title at the Wimbledon Club, in which he called out the doubles standards in coverage and reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine compared to other wars and conflicts, citing Palestine as an example.

Farag insisted he is not an activist or political expert, but felt the need to make a statement. When he won his semi-final in London, he knew he would be handed the microphone the following day, and he followed his heart, not knowing the clip of his speech would go viral and get shared millions of times around the world.

“I kept it brief and honestly I never imagined it would have the reach that it did; I thought given the platform I have, it would only extend to the squash community and fans and that was it. Somehow it took on a life of its own,” said Farag.

“There is a positive side to it and a negative side to it. The positive is that, wow, the reach I can have is really big, way bigger than I imagined. If I wanted to make an impact in any way, I could have a bigger impact than I previously expected.

“But the sad part is that given how much of a noise my speech created, it shows how this topic was never touched upon before. I felt like if saying something as simple as what I said can do all that, then no one has really addressed this before.

“I was so happy to see that Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin [on loan at Real Betis] – I’m an Arsenal fan – said something similar the other day. I feel like, ‘How has no one thought of something like this before? Are people really that brainwashed by the media?’”

A fine line

On a global scale, the idea of athletes speaking out on political or social issues has been heavily debated over the years. We’ve seen NBA stars take a stand in the face of being told to “shut up and dribble” and more athletes are choosing to use their platforms to weigh in on important matters outside of sport.

Farag has never given much thought to that aspect of his profession as a leader of his sport (he has spent a total of 26 months as the world No 1 so far in his career).

“I know that athletes, especially the ones that are seen more as public figures, they have great influence on their societies, so they can raise awareness on many social and political issues," he said. "But I also understand where they’re coming from when they say sports and politics shouldn’t mix, because you also don’t want to see polarisation among fans and see an athlete subjected to hate by one group or another while you’re competing.

“One of the advantages of sport is that it teaches you acceptance. So it’s a fine line. I am not an activist or anything of that sort, so I am not educated enough on such matters and I don’t think I have a clear answer for that.

“But I also see that there has to be some sort of freedom for people to speak their mind, without saying things in the form of hate of course. But if you have an opinion, and can say it with respect, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do that.”

Personal ambitions

In terms of his goals which extend beyond a squash court, Farag started out on tour keen to provide a living example that pursuing a university degree and a professional squash career are not mutually exclusive. Farag reached No 22 in the world in his first year after graduating from Harvard and he can see more players choosing to take the college squash route.

“The whole [Harvard] experience helped me mature and it made me a better player on court,” said Farag. “So in my case, it actually accelerated my career, it didn’t delay me.

“Now, you see a player like Youssef Ibrahim, he made the Windy City final while he’s studying at Princeton. And Victor Crouin, who beat Paul Coll last week studies at Harvard. They’re taking it to the next level.”

Another major ambition for Farag is to help raise squash’s profile around the world and see it gain wider attention.

“I truly believe that squash deserves to be one of the biggest sports in the world, so I hope myself and my colleagues on tour can have that impact on the sport. And I believe we can accomplish that by getting people to get behind the players rather than the sport,” he said. “When I follow tennis, I follow it because I support Federer or Nadal or Djokovic or whoever, I don’t cheer for a yellow ball and a racquet.”

Losing No 1 spot is ‘good for the sport’

Squash is full of great personalities who have built healthy rivalries over the years. Farag was unseated by New Zealand’s Paul Coll at the top of the rankings at the beginning of March, marking the first time since 2017 a non-Egyptian has occupied the No 1 spot. Farag can reclaim the top spot if he outperforms Coll at the British Open this week.

Egyptians have dominated squash on both the men’s and women’s sides for many years, and Farag believes Coll’s ascension to the summit of the rankings is “very good for the sport”.

“If I’m being honest, what we have done as Egyptians in squash, it’s brilliant for Egypt, but it’s bad for us on a personal level and it’s bad for the sport,” Farag said.

“If you look at tennis’ Mayar Sherif for example, she’s the first woman in Egyptian tennis history to break into the top 100, and look at the massive buzz around her. If there were 10 others like her, not as many people would have followed her. So it’s not good on the personal level if that were the case.

“And on the sport level, it’s not good at all. So many times we hear stuff like – within Egypt and abroad – where people say, ‘So what if he’s a world champion, only Egyptians play squash anyway!’ And the Olympics, when the committee looks at diversity and inclusion and all that, their first reaction is, ‘There are only Egyptians in this sport’.

“So of course having a player from New Zealand top the world rankings in squash is a very good thing, especially that New Zealand had never had a man reach world No.1 before. I think it’s brilliant, I love it.”

Farag owns a comfortable 15-4 record lead over Coll in their head-to-head but has lost to the Kiwi in three of their last five meetings, including the British Open final last year.

As Farag chases a maiden British Open title this week, the Egyptian spoke highly of Coll, and says he brings a unique element to the game, with his incredibly physicality and inspiring back story.

“I’m enjoying it [rivalry with Coll] big time, plus I love him and admire him a lot as a person,” said Farag.

“Sometimes you have a loaded or edgy rivalry with someone; my rivalry with Paul Coll is pure competitor to competitor. Outside the court, I very much respect him, and we always joke around. I’m enjoying it big time and it will force me to improve and if I don’t improve, I’ll fall behind. So it’s lifting me up in a way.”

Updated: April 01, 2022, 12:56 PM
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