In a year that has seen Marwan ElShorbagy step out of former world no. 1 Mohamed’s shadow to qualify for the PSA Dubai World Series Finals, Sam Price speaks to the Egyptian brothers about their upbringing and relationship, and about the unique emotions they experience when facing each other on court
What a difference a year makes.
In the build-up to the inaugural PSA Dubai World Series Finals in 2016, world no. 1 Mohamed ElShorbagy – who had won six out of seven Road to Dubai titles that season – promoted the event by playing an exhibition match against Nicol David in front of the Burj Khalifa, while younger brother Marwan watched the tournament unfold on TV having failed to earn enough points to qualify himself.
Fast forward 12 months, and it was ElShorbagy Jr. who jetted in to the emirate to participate in the promotional shoot at Dubai Opera, after a breakthrough campaign that saw him reach his first-ever PSA World Series final and a career-high ranking of no. 5 to seal a coveted spot at the season-ending event.
However, things have not gone quite so smoothly this time around for his decorated older sibling.
After a surprise defeat in the semi-finals last year in Dubai, Mohamed got back on track with victory at the US Open in November 2016, before an alarming slump in form which has seen him suffer his longest title drought for three years. And ironically, it was a first-ever defeat to his younger brother in Chicago, in one of the most emotional matches ever witnessed on the PSA World Series, that brought his 15-month reign at the top of the world rankings to an end.
“I enjoyed every single match, but at the same time it takes so much out of you mentally and physically,” says the 26-year-old about being world no. 1. “So when I started this season, I felt like I had absolutely no fuel in me. I had lost my hunger a little bit.”
That quarter-final showdown at the Windy City Open in February, which saw Marwan come from behind to prevail in a five-game thriller, was tough on brothers who moved to Bristol at a young age to pursue their dreams in squash, and who room together at every tournament.
“It was mixed emotions,” says Mohamed, “It caused the loss of my world no. 1 ranking, but it was also a very proud moment, because if there is someone I would like to see more successful than me one day it’s going to be my younger brother. No one else.”
But Marwan, who had lost all seven previous encounters against his elder brother and mentor, found victory equally difficult to come to terms with.
“I’m here because of Mohamed,” says the 23-year-old. “I followed in his footsteps, and he made it so much easier for me because he’s already been in every situation. So to beat him for the first time was really hard. You can't explain that type of feeling – you have to go on court against your own brother to experience it.”
Despite the credit Marwan gives to Mohamed for his trailblazing exploits, it was the parents – as is so often the case in sport – who played the vital role in the rise of the ElShorbagy brothers, nurturing their talent before sending them away from their home in Alexandria to train full-time in Bristol. So how do they feel when their sons square off against one another?
“It’s even harder for [our parents] than it is for us,” says Marwan. “They don’t come and watch us actually – even if my mother was in Dubai, she would watch on TV. And she won’t give us advice on [how to beat] each other.”
If there is someone I would like to see more successful than me one day it’s going to be my younger brother. No one else
Now, with just one place separating them in seedings, there is the very real possibility that despite being drawn in separate groups, the ElShorbagy brothers could face each other in the semi-finals – or even the final – in Dubai.
“For me, it would be a dream come true to play my brother in the final of the PSA World Series Finals,” says Marwan. “That would be amazing, and it would be very special for my family. [My parents] have done so much for both of us – pushing us from a very young age – and we just try to work really hard and make them proud.”
Having backed up the emotional win in Chicago with another – more comfortable – victory over his brother at the El Gouna International, it is Marwan who approaches the event in better form. But it would be foolish to write off the chances of Mohamed, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest-ever players to wield a squash racket and seemed in relaxed spirits on the eve of the tournament.
“I feel as if I have my motivation back,” he said, before revealing his fondness for Dubai.
“My father used to work [as an engineer] here, and I used to always fly with Emirates whenever I went to tournaments in Malaysia or Hong Kong, so that when I came back I could stay with him for a few days.
“It always feels like home and to be honest, I absolutely love everything about being here; where we stay, the way [Dubai] welcomes us, and the team that [organise] the tournament – they do an amazing job. Everything is professional and done in the right way, and they set a great example for every other promoter and every other tournament to follow. I just can’t wait to be on court.”
While both men will have to navigate their way out of tough groups to make it happen, an all-ElShorbagy clash in the latter stages of squash’s showpiece tournament would certainly be something to savour.
The PSA Dubai World Series Finals runs from 6-10 June at Dubai Opera. Tickets are still available at www.dubaiopera.com