By RJ Mitchell
Ali Farag has admitted that completing a World Championship and British Open double in one season is a tantalising prospect.
The World Champion will begin his challenge for the oldest major title in squash with an opening encounter against Scotland’s Greg Lobban, who has replaced James Willstrop after the former World No.1 was forced to withdraw after contracting COVID-19.
Not since 1996 – when the great Jansher Khan swept all before him to claim both of squash’s most prestigious trophies – has a player been crowned World Champion and British Open champion in the same year.
Yet while Farag is aware that the odds are against him, he is still determined to write his name in the history books as he bids to claim what would be his first British Open title.
The World No.2’s draw is packed full of threat and danger. A possible third round against his fellow Egyptian and great friend Mohamed Abouelghar will be a tough encounter and that could be followed with a potential quarter-final against Mostafa Asal, who beat Farag recently at the CIB PSA World Tour Finals.
Then there is the prospect of a possible semi-final against Marwan ElShorbagy – who boasts a 7-4 head-to-head lead against Farag – meaning that if Farag is to win his first British Open, he will have to do it the hard way.
That is something that is not lost on the World Champion, who said: “Winning the British Open would mean a lot and not just as it would mean doing the double and winning both major titles in one season, but more importantly for how prestigious the British Open title is in the history of squash and being able to put my name on that fantastic trophy.
“After the World Champs, it is the most prestigious and it would undoubtedly be a pleasure and an honour to win it, but I know I have a very tough task ahead of me and a really hard draw, but I am really looking forward to it.
“Historically, players have not done well after winning the World Championships. If you look back at 2015 then Greg [Gaultier] didn’t do well in in Hong Kong after Seattle and although in 2016 Karim [Abdel Gawad] did well, this was an exception and in 2017 Mohamed [ElShorbagy] lost to Ryan Cuskelly after winning the World Champs.
“Then in 2018/19 I lost the following tournament after I won my first world title, so it is about me getting into the right mindset again and gaining the right head space. That is why I have been in Germany getting my head clear and just focusing on training with a great group of guys, so my focus was on getting myself in the best place possible, like I did before Chicago, rather than worrying about the draw.”
Farag has revealed his disappointment after the contraction of COVID-19 by original opponent James Willstrop saw the former World No.1 forced to withdraw: “It’s a huge disappointment to have James pull out of the tournament after contracting the virus. It’s just a sad situation really and I am also sad for the other guys (Patrick Rooney, Declan James, Lisa Aitken) who have had to pull out after being in close contact with him.
“But I texted James last night and he said he is doing alright and that is the most important thing, but he will be sorely missed. I was looking forward to playing James, but at the same time kind of worried as you always know he can come up with a great performance, and I hope he will come back as soon as possible.”
Farag will now face Scotland’s Greg Lobban in his opening encounter this evening at the Allam Sport Centre, and the duo have not met since a 2015 encounter in the first round of the Gillenmarkets Irish Open, which the World No.2 won in four games.
Although not keen to look beyond his meeting with Lobban and determined to take it one match at a time, Farag admitted: “Obviously all my focus is on meeting Greg and trying to get through my first match, but there is the prospect of Abouelghar, my best friend on the PSA World Tour, next and as you know I hate playing against him. The problem is that he knows that as well, so I don’t mind saying it out loud.
“It is not a cliché, but every draw is a tough draw really. If you want to win the tournament then you have to go through every player you come up against, and at this level each one has the ability to hurt you, that is a given.”
Despite winning his second world title, Farag was nudged off the summit of the PSA World Rankings by Mohamed ElShorbagy, yet a return to the top of the mountain is not his priority as he prepares to claim the one major title that has so far eluded him.
Farag said: “I know how much being No.1 means to Mohamed, and it might have meant a lot to me previously before I reached No.1. But now I have had it and been at No.1. Of course, I would like to be at the top of the rankings again and I would like to maintain it, but it is not something I wake up for every day.
“I wake up trying to be better every day and to try and add more trophies and world titles, and hopefully a British Open to my resume. But World No.1, per se, is not something that excites me every single day.
“I will do my very best, but things are all over the place with the amended ranking system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the points are being removed from us from two years back, so it is a bit all over the place in that respect.
“So all I care about is to play well and back up what I did at the World Champs and see how it goes from there. But I am certainly looking forward to the British Open and trying to produce my best squash once again.”