From rock bottom to world's best – Nouran Gohar on her squash rollercoaster
As a teenager the Egyptian was close to being the No. 1 squash player in the world. But then everything changed and she nearly walked away from the sport. This is her journey to the top.
It was early October 2018 when Nouran Gohar sank into her assigned aeroplane seat for the lonely return flight back to Egypt.
Knocked out in the first round of the US Open and with the playing style that had taken her to world No.2 seemingly having evaporated, she had a 16-hour trip to ponder her future.
At some point over the Atlantic, she reached the decision to stop playing and take a break for six months. As she puts it, “I felt like I was on a rollercoaster”.
In truth, she never followed through with the break, choosing to shut herself away from the rest of the world with early morning training sessions with her coach. Her initial goal was not to win again. “The results didn’t matter, what mattered for me was learning to love squash again,” she recalls.
It is a move that paid off with winning both the US Open and the British Open the following year and this month ascending to the coveted world No.1 spot for the first time in her career at the age of 22.
The rise to the top spot was broken to her by the previous incumbent, fellow Egyptian and close friend Raneem El Weleily, who opted to retire.
“She called me the day before,” said Gohar. “It was very unexpected. I was always looking up to her and she was always a role model for me. I never imagined living the day she’ll retire, I felt like she was going to be there for ever.”
There is an element of sadness, in part down to her friend no longer being on tour but also the fact that she couldn’t take over as No.1 by virtue of playing on court.
“The first time I’m introduced on court, it will feel a thrill. I’m happy to reach this point but I felt the happiness was a little bit taken away by not being able to do it by winning on court.”
But, in general, it is still a sense of happiness at achieving a lifetime’s ambition particularly in light of what she calls “the dark times”.
Originally the rising star of the women’s game, by 18 she was ranked second in the world and then things went awry.
I was trying really hard and it was just getting worse and worse. But sometimes when you hit rock bottom, the only way is up and there’s nothing to lose
“I was the underdog and didn’t have any pressure. You think that’s how things will go forever so I took it for granted. At that time, I was looking at the ranking and was very near to the No.1 spot but, in terms of confidence and performance, I didn’t feel close.”
It proved a dual battle – physical and mental – first with a foot injury and then with a back problem, but it was the mental part that proved harder to overcome.
“In that period I was losing matches I was supposed to win. I had to regroup mentally and physically but was really demotivated at that time. I tried everything, and it felt like things were falling apart and I couldn’t regroup,” she said.
“I’d never experienced losing like that before so that was surprising and I wasn’t used to it. I was trying really hard and it was just getting worse and worse. But sometimes when you hit rock bottom, the only way is up and there’s nothing to lose.”
The initial turning point came in unlikely fashion when picked as the No.4 for her country at the Team World Championships in China in September 2018. When selected, she told the national coach she didn’t even want to watch from the stands.
However, despite not playing in the earlier rounds, she was then unexpectedly picked in the final to play against England’s Alison Waters, a player she had lost to three times in a row.
“I was thinking the coach was definitely crazy but I won, and that was the match where I still felt a love for the sport. There were so many emotions and it made me think maybe I still have it.”
A flick had been switched and despite the early exit from the US Open the following month and the feeling of being on a “rollercoaster”, the journey back to the top of the sport was well and truly on.
Reaching the No.1 spot is something big but being on top for a long time is ever harder
There are fears the dark times could yet return but this time she knows she will be better prepared, in part to now having other interests and career paths outside of squash after completing a degree in engineering.
Her main focus now though is firmly on staying in the No.1 spot and not conceding that place to any of her rivals. In recent days, she has been surprised by a new-found further drive.
“When I reached this point I was happy for a few days but then I started thinking that I want more. Reaching the No.1 spot is something big but being on top for a long time is ever harder.
“I have to be on top every single day to keep this spot. It’s stressful and terrifying sometimes but I love a challenge.”