At the age of 26, Raneem El Welily stands as one of the most decorated sportswomen in Egypt’s history. Ranked number one in the world, the multi championship winning squash player has been considered one of the most naturally-talented players of her generation since turning pro in 2002 and a whole host of tournament wins and personal accolades – including been named the 2014/2015 PSA Women’s Player of the year – are just the tip of the iceberg for a truly remarkable Egyptian.
Cairo Gossip’s Mahmoud Hussein caught up with El Welily to talk about the perils of being a child prodigy, her biggest rival and more.
First off, congratulations are in order – how does it feel to be the first Arab female to ever hold the world number one ranking in squash?
It feels great. It’s something I’ve dreamt off for so long. I had two ultimate goals growing up; one of them is to be ranked the world’s number one and the other is to win the Women’s World Open. The World Open is in a month’s time and to win it while ranked the world number one would be a dream come true.
Squash isn’t the most mainstream of sports – how did you get into it?
My parents. I caught the squash bug when they were considering sending my brother to either tennis or squash lessons, but with us living in Alexandria, the weather was too unpredictable – especially in the winter – and so squash made more sense. Another reason is that, at the time, the Egyptian men’s junior team had just won a tournament and there was a lot of buzz around the sport.
Speaking of junior teams, you had a lot of success at a very young age – how did you balance school and squash?
I went to a German school and it wasn’t easy. I had to study hard to pass, especially at the beginning of my career. The school wasn’t really convinced by the whole thing and didn’t like that I had to travel so often. But when they realised how important squash was to me and that I could really achieve something, they stood by my side. The teachers supported me, and so did my classmates, who would keep me up-to-date, give me notes and generally help me get through my studies.
The same can be said for my university. I went to the Arab Academy and majored in Logistics. The Arab Academy has one of the best programs for athletes in Egypt; they understand the life of an athlete.
In terms of balancing squash and school, you have to keep in mind that the competition wasn’t as fierce 10 years ago. Back then, only a handful of girls competed and women’s squash hadn’t taken off. Back then, the draw started at 16 players, now it’s double the number. Nevertheless, there was always a nice healthy sense of competition between the players that I learned and competed with. The players in Alexandria Sporting Club were really strong; but it provided me with the environment that I needed to improve and compete – after all, it was and still is one of the best clubs in Egypt.
When did you begin to realise that a career in squash was an option for you?
I started playing when I was six and I participated in my first local tournament in Alexandria when I was seven, which I came in third in. It was also my brother’s first tournament and he came in third, too, which we were really proud of. Things picked up from there and we went on to take part in tournaments in Cairo, as well – that was when I thought I could really pursue a career in the sport.
My first international tournament was the British Junior Open. You have to understand that, for juniors, the British Open is like the World Open. It’s the most prestigious tournament a junior can be a part of. I’ve participated in the tournament 9 times; I came in 1st place six times, and 2nd three times. I also competed in the World Junior Championship when I was twelve; I lost the first match, but I gained a lot of experience and met a lot of players from around the world, which opened up a completely new dimension of squash to me. That year, Omneya Abdel Kawy came in second and Nicole David came in first.
That was my first encounter with Nicole, back when I was twelve in 2001. I competed again when I was fourteen and lost in the quarter-finals, but came back when I was 16 and won it. I also won the tournament when I was 18, which was a huge accomplishment.
So Do you see Nicole David as your #1 challenger?
She’s actually really hard to beat; she’s really skilled and really consistent. She was number one for nine years, so she has a lot of experience – she’s a legend of the sport. I love being on the court with her; I love a good challenge. She’s a very fair and very decent on and off the court. I’ve always admired her and I honestly can’t see anyone ever breaking her nine-year record.
Looking back at your career, obviously it wasn’t easy? How do you reflect looking back at your achievements?
I don’t think about it this way. Squash is a sport of so many details and you can always be better.
Describe a normal day in your life.
We train six days a week, twice a day. My normal day would be a fitness session at 10AM followed by a squash session at 12PM and then another at 7PM. A session is normally an hour and a half. My fitness coach is Ahmed Faragallah, my squash coach is Haitham Effat. They’ve been training me for six years now and they’ve improved my game massively.
I really don’t know where I would be without them, they changed me totally. Wadi Degla is where I’m based. It’s a great club, with a lot of good facilities.
Do you ever get bored with the routine?
I can get bored really easy sometimes. But my coaches are always coming up with interesting new approaches to training and exercise – more challenging, too.
But regardless of that, you can’t wake up one day and decide that you’re not feeling up to it. You have to think about the people and the coaches that are also putting an effort in your training. I’m doing it for them in the same way that they’re doing it for me. They’ve seen me almost every day for the past six years and we have a really strong bond, which also keeps me motivated.
You’ve travelled far and wide – have any of the city’s and countries you’ve been to made a particularly strong impression on you?
The problem with traveling for squash is that you have to rest before matches, so I never really have the chance to do any sightseeing or anything. You have to keep your activities to a minimum and reserve your energy. After a tournament, though, I’m free to do whatever I want. If I win I’ll try and enjoy the city I’m in, but when I lose, I just feel like I want to go home and start training and working again.
If I have to choose one place, though, it has to be New York – I love the food and the people.
As we mentioned earlier, squash isn’t the most mainstream sport in Egypt – do you think you and other squash players are getting enough plaudits?
Growing up, I was a bit jealous of how football was always the main point of focus on the media. I wouldn’t say that I’m still jealous; I’ve grown, matured and I focused on my own game. I’m not bothered by what attention I’m getting and not getting, but what bothers me most is that my sport isn’t getting the attention. What bothers me is that if squash doesn’t get more coverage, then it’ll die. For example, most squash players in Egypt get scholarships from the US when they turn 17. I mean, I don’t blame them – they have better facilities and a better chance of making a living from squash. Some of the best squash players in the world have come from Egypt, but unless we bring the sport more to the forefront and encourage boys and girls that want to pursue it, we’ll hit a ceiling.