Raneem El Welily: 'The Enigma' leaves a lasting legacy on and off the squash court

World squash No 1 a true legend of sporting excellence after a stunning career on and off the court

It can be difficult finding the right words when paying tribute to a legend of the sport upon their retirement. How can you ever do them justice?

That couldn’t be more true than in the case of Raneem El Welily, who at 31, is walking away from squash as reigning world No 1, after an 18-year record-breaking career.

The Egyptian, who scooped 24 titles –  including the 2017 World Championship – during her professional journey, will go down in history as the first Arab woman to be ranked No 1 in any sport, and she did it by snapping one of the most impressive streaks in any sport: Nicol David’s nine-year stay at the top of the squash rankings.

One could list all the stats and figures that make El Welily’s tenure in the sport an unforgettable one, or put together an extensive highlight reel showcasing her ridiculous on-court skills – her signature behind-the-back shot is a personal favourite – but the Alexandrian’s legacy extends well beyond that.

“She paved the way for many, many Egyptians to follow suit,” El Welily’s husband, squash world No 4 and current world champion Tarek Momen told 'The National'.

“She set an unbelievable example as the most ethical person, who has sportsmanship… she’s not only ferocious, she’s extremely humble and has work ethic like no other.

“She set a very good example for the kids and that’s the most important thing – that you’re not only achieving things, it’s how you’re achieving them. I feel like her legacy is more about how she did it.”

Indeed ‘The Enigma’, as she is commonly nicknamed in squash circles, rose to the summit – she spent a total of 23 months as world No 1 – by shattering the stereotype that you need to be cutthroat and selfish in order to succeed in an individual sport. She is one of the most approachable and least assuming sports stars you’d ever meet, and she was so beloved that her peers voted for her to win the Spirit of Squash award for four consecutive years.

US squash Hall-of-Famer and organiser of multiple events, including the Tournament of Champions in New York, John Nimick, described El Welily as “the heartbeat of the PSA Pro Tour”, while British ex-world No 2 Jenny Dencalf tweeted she is “THE best thing about women’s squash”.

For years, Egyptian men were at the forefront of squash on the global stage but it wasn’t until El Welily broke through that the women finally joined their male compatriots at the helm. It’s only fitting that her retirement has made way for another Egyptian, Nouran Gohar, to become world No 1 for the first time. The current top two, and three of the world’s top four women, all hail from the North African nation.

“Raneem had never witnessed an Egyptian woman becoming world No 1, she did it herself. She truly did it by herself, for herself. She didn’t have any touchable example around her to be able to reach this point. So she made it even easier for us,” Gohar told the squash tour’s official website in an interview.

El Welily of course doesn’t see it this way. She refuses to take full credit for ending David’s seemingly unshakeable reign, and instead pays tribute to those who helped her get there.

“I always believed that, yes, I may have done it but it wasn’t just with my effort, it was the effort of many generations who tried to do it over time, the effort of all the Egyptians who paved the way for me,” El Welily told 'The National' in a phone interview.

“At the time, it wasn’t just me trying to end that streak, it was me, Laura [Massaro], and a few other girls pushing for that. So even though I actually managed to finally do it, I always believed that it was due to the steps that were put for me before and helped me reach that goal.”

The true legacy of El Welily is probably most evident in her relationships – her relationship with her peers, her relationship with her biggest rivals, and even her relationship with her husband.

She isn’t too comfortable discussing her own legacy but takes pride in how highly her fellow players regarded her. “As long as people remember you for who you were, that’s more than enough for me,” she says with genuine humility.

Perhaps one of her idols, Australian legend Rachael Grinham, said it best.

“’Serial winner of the Spirit of Squash award’ says it all for me,” tweeted the 43-year-old Queenslander. “Not many players win all the titles and still have the utmost respect from literally all of their peers. A legend in every aspect of the word.”

El Welily didn’t just have the respect of some her toughest rivals, she was also one of their closest friends. She personally called Gohar to inform her that she was retiring and congratulated the 22-year-old on becoming the next new world No 1 – a conversation that moved Gohar to tears.

The rivalry with her fellow Alexandrian El Sherbini is most iconic. The duo have battled one another for the No 1 spot for most of the past four years, and they’ve faced off 24 times, with their head-to-head record fittingly split dead even.

El Sherbini, who is seven years her junior, posted a heartfelt message for El Welily in honour of her retirement, describing her as “a sister”, “a shoulder to cry on” and “the best travel companion I could ask for”.

El Welily acknowledges that having such a close relationship with her biggest rival is not an easy feat to pull off, but they found a way to make it work and El Sherbini soon became the Martina to her Chrissie.

“We found the balance of keeping our squash life on the side when it came to our friendship,” El Welily said of El Sherbini, whom she had just texted en route to Egypt’s North Coast to see if they could meet up there.

“So our friendship was more on the personal level, never on the squash level. Yes we supported each other when we played against others, but on the personal level, it was always easy.

“She was always easy to talk to; she was always there for me whenever I needed her. We understood each other well. I’m sure it might come across as strange to some people, and I don’t think a lot of people had the ability to do that, but I’m actually very glad that we found the balance that helped us do both, support each other on and off court and at the same time compete against each other on court.”

Judging from the countless tributes El Welily has received on social media alone, one can get a sense of just how wide her impact has been felt throughout the years. But she wasn’t just an inspirational figure to the masses, she also played that role at home, as her husband, Momen, explains how she helped him elevate his level.

In a Middle Eastern culture where women are often encouraged to prioritise starting a family over their professional careers, Momen and El Welily provided a great example of how a couple can give each other unconditional support in order to reach their goals.

They also set a Guinness World Record together by becoming the first married couple to win the World Championship.

“Definitely being married to Raneem, especially in the last six years… I was already in the top-10 in the world, but I was in the bottom part, like towards No 9 or 10 in the world and she was far ahead,” says Momen.

“Being able to live with her and see how she goes through emotions in a tournament and in practice time, it gave me a perspective on what are the missing components in my game and in my lifestyle that I could change in order to get better.

“I kept note of how she dealt with the pressure for example, playing back-to-back tournaments and making it to the latter rounds every time is not an easy thing and I needed to learn this. In the last couple of years I managed to do that, but I had already experienced it through the eyes of Raneem.

“It definitely helped pull me up.”

El Welily and Momen are expecting their first child together and in her retirement announcement posted on social media, she said she was grateful her husband never pressured her into hanging up her racquets sooner.

“From day one, everything I thought of was to put myself in Raneem’s shoes in any decision-making part. For example, if I felt like I want to have a baby now and if I wanted her to retire, I would put myself in her shoes and think, ‘If I were in her place, would I have liked it if someone told me something like that?’ Of course not,” he stated.

“Plus, I knew that each one of us had their own goals and own targets they wanted to achieve, and there is nothing I would have loved more than to see Raneem reach her full potential in the sport because I could see how talented she is and how much she deserves to walk away from the sport having achieved all the goals she had set for herself.”

Now ready for her next chapter, ‘The Enigma’ may be walking away from squash, but her legacy – the part that matters the most to her anyway – will never fade because no one can ever forget who she really was: The people’s champion, who championed everyone around her.