High-intensity squash and Bristol’s relaxed environs have helped shape two Egyptian brothers into world-class sportsmen, as Rod Gilmour discovers
Can a city be seen as a catalyst for success in an elite sportsman’s career? Leeds may have the Brownlees, Team GB’s triathlon heroes, but two Egyptian brothers are firm believers that living in Bristol has been key to shaping their sporting careers.
For the last decade, the West Country has been home to squash stars Mohamed and Marwan El Shorbagy, who have consistently made headlines – as well as making jaws drop – with their hard-hitting style since settling in Bristol.
I met the brothers to discuss their remarkable rise in squash, the pressure to maintain sibling success and how the city has kept them both grounded and anonymous. After all, how many people know that Bristol has had a world number one, in one of the most physically demanding of sports?
“It’s been a very interesting journey and one day I will hopefully be retelling it to my kids,” says Mohamed, who was world number one for nearly two years until April. “Every top athlete has a story to inspire people. Right now I try to live that story so I can tell it.”
And he’s doing so from his adopted city. “You just have your own freedom here,” adds the 26-year-old. “Bristol is a city where anyone can do what they want – a city with no rules! It feels like there is something exciting happening the whole time. I feel at home and I’m comfortable when I go back.”
Marwan, three years younger, also heaps praise on the place. “For the first two years I didn’t discover Bristol,” he confesses. “Once I did, believe it or not, it has made a huge difference to my squash. It’s one of the reasons why I got to the top 10.
“I’ve always put myself under pressure but the city helps me recover mentally and relaxes the mind. How? Well, as a friend said, you don’t get Bristol until you get it!”
Squash has been making giant strides to finally become an Olympic sport after failing to be included at the last three Games. Forget thoughts of cold plaster courts on a Tuesday evening. The modern glass court can be positioned anywhere – there are tournaments in front of Egypt’s Giza Pyramids and in the art deco hall at Grand Central in New York. High-definition coverage has added television appeal, while the speed of the game, with players regularly scampering to all four corners, makes for compelling viewing.
We meet at the season-ending World Series Finals in Dubai. And just to emphasise the sport’s growth, the all-glass court is located on stage at Dubai Opera, a lavish multi-million pound arts venue.
The El Shorbagy brothers have been at the forefront of this squash revolution over the last few years. While most Egyptian players opt to stay in Cairo and Alexandria – despite the country’s troubles of recent years – Mohamed and Marwan have forged a different path.
From the beginning…
It started in the West Country in 2006 when, on a player’s recommendation, Mohamed – then 15 – travelled to Millfield School in Somerset on a sports scholarship. Marwan followed a year later and both were coached by the great Jonah Barrington. Now in his seventies, he still remains the brothers’ mentor.
To remain close to Barrington, the brothers studied at the University of the West of England. They have resided on Frenchay campus since 2010, are on UWE’s High Performance Athlete Programme, and are now studying part-time Masters’ degrees; Marwan in real estate management and Mohamed in finance. “Everything is organised in the ideal way and the university has made it that way,” says Mohamed. “From the first day I arrived, everything was set up perfectly. I have no reason to change my life right now.”
If there was change, it would be to move into a city centre flat, which the brothers are currently exploring. And after seven years out at Frenchay, who could blame them? But being entwined with their peers has kept the brothers grounded. “I think Bristol has a very positive influence on the brothers,” says their coach, Hadrian Stiff. “The city is quite anonymous for them. Nobody is looking at what they do or how they do it and they benefit from the interaction with young people at the university who are not involved in squash.”
The pair train at Frenchay facilities and the Vivo Club, the bustling squash and fitness centre on Floating Harbour. Mohamed was the first pro player to train at the club; now there are a host of players from across the globe. “It feels nice,” he says. “We recently had a social tournament at the club. It was 1am and we were all still chatting and laughing. Seven years ago I was the only one sat at the table.”
Where Mohamed is undecided on where he will live after his career finishes, Marwan is unequivocal. “I would live in Bristol for the rest of my life. When you first move, it’s all about the night life. As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that it’s so different. I feel more at home here than Egypt. I was homesick when I first moved to Somerset. It’s now the case that I have that smile when I’m nearing home after a tournament: that feel of the river, the harbourside, the city.”
Mohamed’s passion still runs deep though. “I love Bristol’s vibe, the atmosphere and different culture. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like capitals. I like cities which have everything and everyone knows everyone. That’s Bristol.”
Thanks to his explosive game, everyone certainly knows Mohamed on tour. He became world number one at the end of 2014 and stayed there, barring one month, until April. In that time he has won the British Open, the oldest event in the sport, and lifted seven trophies in 2016. The World Championship title still evades him, but he has been runner-up twice.
After Marwan led Egypt to world junior team success in 2012, his senior rise has been as rapid as his court game. He entered the world’s top five last year, meaning that we are likely to see the El Shorbagy name in the top 10 for the next decade.
Head to head
Of course, they do have to play each other at times. At Chicago’s Windy City Open in March, Marwan beat his older brother for the first time. On winning, he turned to Mohamed, dropped his head on his shoulder and cried. The video went viral. “Whenever we play each other, fans seem to love the matches,” says Marwan. “We don’t enjoy it but it’s bringing something new to squash.”
Victory changed certain aspects for Marwan. “You have to be careful where you go in Egypt. After the match in Chicago, things changed for me. My brother is well known on the Cairo streets but for me, it made a huge difference. People started to know me. I’m the type of guy who likes to do my own thing. Sometimes as an athlete you like to be appreciated – I get that when I go to Vivo, while in the street I can be free. In Egypt I don’t feel free. I don’t feel comfortable.”
Meanwhile, defeat for Mohamed meant that he lost his world number one status. This year has been tough for him in all. Up until the season-ending Dubai event, he had yet to win on tour. The pressure of being the hunted had taken its toll. Yet he renewed his hunger for the sport by joining the group training sessions at Vivo – and making the odd trip to Brandon Hill. “I’m a person who loves natural views and places, it’s my favourite place,” admits Mohamed. “If I have a problem with my life I can go there morning or night. I feel like I’m top of the world.”
Feeling reinvigorated, he travelled to Dubai in early June with room-mate Marwan. A few days after we speak, he performs brilliantly on stage to lift the World Series Finals trophy. “This season I didn’t play with my spirit, but I’m really proud I got that back,” he says.
Marwan was the first to climb on stage and embrace Mohamed. But the younger Shorbagy is now ready to step out of his brother’s shadow. “He’s my role model and I’ve lived everything with him,” says Marwan. “But I’ve managed to put the pressure away and I want to create my own story and the best version of myself.
“Everyone has a story to tell and I’ve started to appreciate what others are doing too. It’s not all about the money and we’re blessed with what we have.”
And Bristol should certainly feel blessed too. “The city and university have given us so much that we want to give something back,” they add, in brotherly unison. “We are so thankful for their support.”
Mohamed and Marwan’s perfect Bristol day
- Small St Espresso for breakfast and flat whites
- To Vivo Club on Floating Harbour for a hit with our coach
- Lunch at St Nicholas Market for some Moroccan food
- A walk on Brandon Hill for the special view of the city
- Back to Vivo for an afternoon training session
- Chill by the harbourside in the evening
Twitter: @moelshorbagy; @maelshorbagy