Motherhood gives squash star Nour El-Tayeb a new perspective but world domination remains his target
When Nour El-Tayeb found out she was pregnant at the end of 2020, she remembers becoming very emotional, suddenly being forced to wrestle with the idea that she was going to retire from squash without achieving two of her biggest goals: reaching first place in the world and winning the world championship.
Egypt’s former world No. 3 announced she was pregnant in a raw and heartfelt video, fighting back tears as she reflected on her career, and although it looked like she was hanging up her racket, her statements of closing left the door open for a possible return.
“Probably my dad thinks I’m going to do a Serena Williams and come back to play again, my dad believes so much that I can do it; I’m not sure,” El-Tayeb said, referring to the tennis superstar who reached four Grand Slam finals after having her first child, Olympia.
El-Tayeb’s father was not wrong.
Although she had no real plans to, El-Tayeb was back in training two and a half months after having her daughter Farida – who arrived in July 2021 – and in December she was competing in her first tournament. , the Squash Open Black Ball in Cairo. .
She enjoyed a winning comeback, triumphing in her first match back from maternity leave before falling to world No. 1 Nour El-Sherbini in the quarter-finals.
According to her husband, world number 2 squash Ali Farag, El-Tayeb is not planning too far and she only felt the urge to start training again and considered a possible comeback when she attended the Championship world in Chicago last summer.
“The day Ali won the world championship in Chicago, I was there with Farida, she was only two weeks old; I arrived and watched Nour (El-Sherbini) and Nouran (Ghoul) compete in the final, I really wanted to play,” El-Tayeb told Arab News on the eve of the British Open, which begins on Monday. . in Hull.
“I first started exercising to lose weight and get in shape after giving birth. I did it step by step at first, but as soon as I started exercise, I wanted to try to make a comeback.
This week’s British Open – one of the most prestigious events on the squash calendar and dubbed “the Wimbledon of squash” – will be just the fifth tournament on El-Tayeb’s return tour.
So far she has reached a semi-final in her second event, pushing world No. 1 El-Sherbini to four games before retiring, then shocking world No. 3 Hania El-Hammamy en route to the 2022 Black Ball quarter-finals. Opened a few weeks later.
“At first, one of the reasons I wanted to retire from squash – and thank God I got pregnant – was that I felt I was getting too desperate for a while to reach world number one. So nothing less than reaching number one or winning a tournament really upset me,” El-Tayeb said.
“I felt like I walked out of every tournament feeling upset; even if I made a final or had a good result, I would still feel bad about it. So I told Ali that I didn’t want to go back to squash with the same mindset.
“The mindset I had in the past, I was living a really good life, but somehow I always felt upset, which I shouldn’t. I so had hope that having a baby would change my perspective.
And has his point of view really changed?
“I think more or less yes,” said the 29-year-old.
“I still want to win but at the moment I’m still in the phase where my expectations are low because I’ve just started my comeback and I still haven’t reached a higher level.
“But so far I feel like I’m putting a little less pressure on myself because my day is very exhausting and my life doesn’t revolve around me anymore, so anyway there’s less pressure. .”
While other sports have seen mothers make successful returns to competition, such examples are rare in squash.
Ex-world No. 2 Natalie Grinham returned to squash after having her first child and re-entered the top 10 before having her second child four years later. Her second comeback was short-lived and she retired from the sport in 2017.
El-Tayeb sought advice from Grinham as she returned to the tour, focusing on various topics, such as breastfeeding alongside training, among others.
El-Tayeb’s return to professional squash so soon after giving birth has been nothing short of inspiring, and her peers are the first to say so. Her goals remain high and she is trying to do something no one has ever done before in squash: reach the top of the rankings and become a world champion as a mother competing on the circuit.
Her comeback has garnered a lot of attention and respect, and she admits she didn’t fully grasp the impact it could have when she took her first steps back onto the squash court.
“I honestly didn’t expect it to be a big thing, but also when I got pregnant I started to realize how hard it was and why most female athletes choose to get pregnant. towards the end of their professional career, not in the middle,” El-Tayeb said.
“I realized how demanding it was. But at the same time it is doable.
“I didn’t know I would help others by setting an example, but honestly, if I can, especially in today’s world of social media where everyone follows everyone else, if I can help people, it’s It’s a very good thing and it’s something I would like to continue doing.
“In Egypt, the norm is to quit competition when you get pregnant, so if my example can maybe help people consider returning to sport after giving birth, then that’s a very good thing. Women are susceptible to postpartum depression, so exercise is definitely a way to counter that as well.
El-Tayeb spoke about some of the challenges she faced as a new mother competing on tour. As a professional athlete, she used to have her whole day revolve around her squash and every part of it focused on her best performances in practice or at tournaments. That dynamic has completely changed now that she has Farida.
“I now plan my practices around Farida’s meal and sleep schedule,” she said. “I don’t sleep well so I have to adapt to lack of sleep or this kind of intermittent sleep. If I had to pick one thing as the toughest challenge, it would be lack of sleep.
“But it’s good that I don’t think about squash all the time anymore, I’m not obsessed all the time, ‘Did I play well today? Did I play badly? Now I’m going back to training and It’s over. Today, in fact, I haven’t thought about squash since I came back from training,” she told me last Thursday.
So far, El-Tayeb and her husband Farag have alternated parenting duties according to their tournament schedules and relied on the help of their families when they are at home in Cairo. On the road, things can get a little trickier, especially if the two have games or practices scheduled at similar times.
Some of the players have offered to babysit while El-Tayeb is on the pitch and while traveling with an eight-month-old can be daunting, she really embraces it and is actually thrilled about it.
The Farag clan are heading to the British Open, which kicks off today in Hull.
Supermom Nour El Tayeb will only be playing her 5th tournament since her return from maternity leave. pic.twitter.com/kQ2V45oQF3
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) March 28, 2022
“If you lived with us, you would be absolutely impressed with what she does,” Farag tells me of his wife.
“She doesn’t get enough sleep, she goes to training feeling tired; she had Farida with her and sometimes she had to cut her training short because Farida was crying and she had to feed her. On the trip, it’s game day and she hasn’t slept enough. So many dynamics around it that do not facilitate competition; it’s really inspiring to be honest.
The Farag clan flew to the UK on Saturday ahead of the British Open and a photo of the three of them – Ali, Nour and Farida – napping in the car as they headed to Hull was published by the World No. 4 Amanda Sobhy with the caption: “When baby Farida sleeps on the road trip to Hull, so do mum and dad.”
Although El-Tayeb acknowledges that she is slightly worried about how she will perform in her matches given that she has her daughter with her at the tournament, she is relishing the adventure.
“I’m thrilled that it’s a new experience and a new challenge,” she said. “In the past five years, I hadn’t experienced anything new in squash; I was going to the same tournaments, the same places. This time the setup is new and fun. Traveling with Farida is good, having her with me helps me not to think too much about my matches like I did in the past. So it’s nice in that sense. I like the idea of having Ali and Farida travel together. It is, once again, a great experience.
Farag, who won a Wimbledon title earlier this month, paid tribute to El-Tayeb in his victory speech and said he was keen to rush to Cairo to support Farida while his wife takes part at a tournament in the Egyptian. Capital city.
It was a statement that carries deep value, describing how strongly he supports El-Tayeb in his pursuit of a professional career, especially in the face of an Egyptian society that doesn’t necessarily see too many husbands encouraging their wives to work.
“For me, I think that’s the most beautiful message we can try to convey – that a man encourages his wife to pursue her career,” El-Tayeb said.
“We see so many people around us in Egypt, from all walks of life, that most men don’t encourage their wives to work. It’s one of the greatest things my husband is encouraging and supporting me in my squash career and he’s the one who thinks I can achieve the #1 ranking today.
“I hope people can see that something like this can only make a relationship between a man and a woman stronger than anything else.
“When we both won the US Open at the same time (in 2017), I could see some of the reactions were like ‘Wow that’s so good, look how Ali is supporting his wife’s career’ , and stuff like that. So it was a nice message at the time and I hope we can continue like this.
While El-Tayeb tries not to put too much pressure on herself as she pursues this unexpected comeback, she cannot let go of her competitive nature and innate desire to succeed.
“I really, really want to be No. 1 in the world. Even though my expectations at the moment are low, I still want to be able to win the next world championship, which will be in two months,” said El Tayeb, who was runner-up behind Nour El Sherbini at Worlds in 2019.
“I feel like it’s doable, especially since it’s going to be in Egypt. I really want to win it. It’s still my goal, it’s still my dream.