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Nour El Sherbini: The Great Bambina

Niveen Ghoneim heads to Alexandria to meet the world's youngest top-ranking squash player, 20-year-old Nour El Sherbini, who has broken records and made history in the sport. The young prodigy opens up about competitiveness on the court, her fears and insecurities, and what drives her.

It is a brisk Alexandrian afternoon – preceded by a raucous two-hour train ride from the bustling capital to the Pearl of the Mediterranean. I catch a whiff of sea air as I make my way through the busy narrow streets which turns to wind once I reach the city’s coastal road. By the time I get to the iconic Sporting Club, I am already intoxicated. I scurry up the stairs of the club’s squash complex to finally meet Nour El Sherbini, the world’s youngest top-ranking squash player.

The 20-year-old Alexandrian is no stranger to triumph; she has played the game since the age of six, kicking some major athlete butt and taking names at every turn. In 2007, the prodigy earned the first of many British Junior Open Squash Championship titles and from then on it was one win after another. She broke the record for the youngest player ever to win the World Junior Squash Championship at the tender age of thirteen, a title she won a whopping three times, becoming the only player in the history of the game to achieve such heights. Her latest record breaking win was at the JP Morgan Tournament of Champions (a World Series tournament) earlier this month when she ended Egyptian-American Amanda Sobhy’s winning streak, becoming the youngest person ever to win the ToC.

She greets me with a hearty smile at the entrance of a bright glass-walled coffee shop on the second floor and as we are making our way in, looking for a quiet spot to converse, an old man approaches to congratulate her on her win. “Mabrook ya Nour!” he cries, to which she smiles shyly and thanks him. There isn’t a single person we come across that doesn’t salute her with a nod, a smile, or a hand gesture. She is the quintessential homegirl.  

Sports, as I have come to know them, are a series of euphoric highs and manic lows; towering wins and crushing defeats; you are either Babe Ruth (a.k.a The Great Bambino) or Chris Dudley - there is no middle ground. A seemingly endless marathon fueled by every atom of an athlete’s being and pure love of the game, hence my first question to Sherbini: “Does it ever wear you down?” She smiles and says, “I think I need to be under pressure all the time. However, sometimes, you have to take a break from everything, but then you think to yourself, ‘I need to go back’.” “Are you competitive in general?” I ask. “I guess I’m only competitive in sports - I’m a completely different person on court. But I also learned so much from squash that I apply in life aside from competitiveness, like efficiency and time management,” she answers.  

I later see flashes of that ‘completely different person’ when we head to a training hall, with three boisterous squash courts on either side of the room. She sits on a bench opposite a court to tie her trainers as if she is gearing up for a battle before she carefully picks up her racket and steps onto the battlefield. On court, she is no longer the nice girl I had coffee with earlier; she moves cautiously before pouncing like a panther, thunderously yet effortlessly hitting the soft ball with her racket.

It comes so naturally to her, almost instinctually, which comes as no surprise considering how long she has played the game. “My brother played so many sports and I was very little so I used to go with him everywhere, but by the time he settled on squash, I was old enough to play, so I joined him. He would encourage me to play regularly and take the last ten minutes of his training sessions to teach me,” she reminisces.How does someone so young navigate the tumultuous seas of sports with such ease? El Sherbini certainly seems to have cracked the code; the trick is to love the game so much that everything else pales in comparison. “I love squash, but everything around it like training and fitness and such I don’t like very much, but I do it out of love for the game,” she says. “I won my first local tournament when I was seven, but I’m not afraid of peaking too early, I can compete until the end and give it my all as long as I love what I do and I’m happy doing it,” she says confidently.

Her many accomplishments leave you wondering if she was ever defeated or if she has ever had bouts of self-doubt, but you would be surprised to know that the world class athlete too has had her fair share of agony. “It is the worst feeling an athlete can experience,” she says of loss. “Last year was very hard for me; I lost a lot, I would go back to Egypt feeling terrible, lock myself in my room and suspend my life, basically, and then I’d come around, because the game doesn’t stop, it keeps going,” she tells me. Her losses have left their indelible mark on her. “This last tournament [ToC], I was filled with doubt and fears before every match, I would go on court thinking I was going to lose. But once I start playing, I totally forget about it and I just focus on the game rather than my own fears,” she adds.Nour El Sherbini displays a wisdom beyond her years. “Everybody worries about the future, but I’m just not one of those people who can plan their entire lives ahead, I approach life as something that cannot go wrong because if it does you can always fix it,” she says with a smile.   

Athletes come and go, but only those who can achieve the delicate balance between ego and humility make it to history books. 20-year-old Nour El Sherbini plays the game with the audacity and passion of a child untainted by life’s falsehoods, and the artistry of a seasoned master - if that isn’t worthy of history books, I don’t know what is.

Photoshoot by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.

Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.