We spoke to Kanzy El Defrawy about her experiences as a squash player and the rise of Squash in her home country, Egypt.
Zushan Hashmi: Tell us about your life before squash?
Kanzy El Defrawy: I started squash when I was 7, so for me, there wasn’t really much before squash. The only memories I can recall, revolve around my parents being passionate about sports and encouraging me to try out different sports.
I played gymnastics, tennis, swimming, basketball, you name it, I played whatever sport that was out there. I remember being a really active and energetic child, but also extremely competitive, and I was curious to explore sports with the goal to beat everyone else around me in every sport I played.
How did you start playing squash?
Squash is huge in Egypt and the 2nd most popular sport after football. In the last 10 years, Egyptian male and female squash players have launched themselves onto the global scene by dominating the top 10 rankings
My parents saw potential in me to become a champion. They backed me to play squash and as funny as that may sound, I didn’t Iike squash in the beginning, I found it very challenging which irritated and frustrated me because I couldn’t hit the ball as hard as the older players.
As I said, I always liked winning, so it took a while for me to get used to it. My parents dragged me to practice, as they were told I had excellent hand-eye coordination for my age. They saw a lot of potential in me and really wanted to see how good I can get.
Slowly, I began to understand the rules and became a part of the squash community by joining a club back home and squash became my everything. Growing up in Egypt, you are surrounded by squash legends and successful athletes, so you aspire to be like them and you start to believe that can indeed become like them one day.
And what was it like becoming a professional?
Growing up, my parents always wanted me to compete with the older age group. When I was 9 I didn’t compete in the under-11 category, but rather U13’s and U 15’s.
My playing level starting to improve drastically because I was competing with more intense players. I must say, I did well against older players because I competed with no fear, coming in as an underdog with nothing to lose. All of this happened in Egypt where I was competing on a local level. I did not become a pro until the age of 12, and I still remember that day as if it was yesterday.
My parents came up to me as well as my coaches and they explained that there is a professional tournament in Egypt in a couple of weeks and that I am eligible to enter. I was so excited in my first match where I versed against a lady from New Zealand who was 32 at the time and ranked within the top 50 in the world.
And because I had only registered, I was ranked 500 something, as far as I can remember. I gave it my in my debut match and defeated my opponent in the presence of my parents, sisters, friends and coaches. It made headlines that ‘’A 12-year-old shocks a top 50 player’’ and that’s when the realisation hit me that I could really compete at the international level. My dad invested a lot in me to travel the world and play tournaments.
I broke into the top 100 when I was 14 and the top 50 when I was 16.
Why did you enjoy squash so much, relative to other sports?
I think squash is an impressive sport that is ever so challenging. There is no room to lose focus, the minute you’re distracted, the game’s gone. Everyday, every practice and every ball I hit is a challenge. I am extremely competitive in nature and I think the reason why I love squash so much is because I always believed I could make a mark in the game and so people will know my name. But to make it simple, I enjoy squash because I’m naturally good at it.
You now live in Dubai, what takes you there?
2 years ago I got badly injured in my lower back and its when I realized that if I don’t have squash, I have nothing. Its extremely hard when the one thing that i wake up to do every morning is suddenly taken away from me.
But this also hit me that even if I keep playing squash till I’m 30 years old, what will I do after retirement? Open a squash Academy? Be a squash coach? I wanted my life to be a lot more than that. And I realized that my life cannot forever, revolve around one thing. I
studied in one of the best high schools in Egypt and then went to college in America, I wanted to use my education and all my set skills in things that can stay with me for a much longer time.
I wanted to use my leadership and my public speaking skills so I decided to move to Dubai to explore more opportunities. I currently work in the event industry leading some of the biggest events in the world while also playing squash everyday, not professionally though.
What are some of the highlights of your career?
Many, I’d say all the PSA world titles I’ve won I consider highlights, but If I were to pick one, then it would definitely be Tournament of Champions at the Grand Central Station, New York City.
I was still studying in the US at the time and was happy for the opportunity to play in NYC at an all glass court set up inside Grand Central Station.
I had 3 really big wins in a row beating 3 of the best top 15 players in the world and then I had to face no. 4 in the world at that time. I was able to deliver that day but the match itself was not the highlight, this point was:
Why I’ve picked this one is because this was record breaking, no female in squash history has ever dived that many times in a single point. I was one point away from winning the game which would have brought us to a 2/2 games score.
What have been some of your biggest challenges in the sport?
There were many: I am an extremely social person, but I had to sacrifice all my friend’s events, all the birthday parties, all for the sake of Squash, I kept Squash before anything and anyone.
Education was another challenge where I had to learn how to balance my academics and squash training on a daily basis. I was traveling to almost 8 countries every year for tournaments whilst taking my exams and graduated high school. The challenge with squash is that its an extremely personal sport, everything you do affects you. You could have the best coaches in the world and fail, if you don’t have the right mindset.
My biggest challenge career wise was when I was in college, I used to be the number one squash female college player in America and had to play all the games with my college while also playing professionally.
Moving to the other side of the world when I was 17 was already a challenge in itself, but then I realized I had to be committed to my squash college team, excel in academics, while maitaining my international professional ranking in the female PSA league.
When people think of Egypt, the first thing that comes to mind is football, however, Egyptians are dominating squash on all fronts. Why is this?
My graduating thesis answered this question. I wrote a 200-page paper after conducting extensive research on the topic. I was so curious to find out the answer myself, but to summarize it for you, it all started when Ahmed Barada (a former professional squash player) competed in the Pyramids open, where the squash court is located directly opposite to the Pyramids. He came 2nd at the time and got recognition from the president.
I really believe that this was the breakthrough moment giving Egyptian parents and players motivation towards squash. He made it real for everyone, I grew up playing in a club with some of the most recognized legends of the game like Ramy Ashour , Karim Darwich, Amr Shabana, so it gives you the energy to become a champion from a very young age.
There is another theory that Egypt is a 3rd world country who is far behind in sports. The football team has so far only qualified twice for the World Cup, so even the most popular sport in the country isn’t dominating at any fronts. Squash though, is the only sport which Egypt is really proud of.
It brings a sense of pride in a developing economy, so I think nationalism definitely has a lot to do with it. but if you want more details, I’ll send you my thesis!
Are the systems and infrastructure for squash in Egypt really good? Why/why not?
Yes, 100%. Egypt has many big sports clubs with really nice squash courts. What I noticed in the US is that squash courts are mostly found in rich locales and high-end places like fancy hotels and country clubs, so it is most likely targeted at the higher class. Whereas in Egypt it is much more accessible for the middle class.
Though Egypt has nice facilities, I don’t think that is the only defining factor of squash’s success in the country, I definitely think it’s the community that you grow up in.
In your opinion:
Is squash less popular than it was in the 70s-80s?
I think back then racket ball was more popular than squash. Squash is now a growing sport and everyone is rooting for it to be an Olympic sport.
Why does squash not get Olympic status?
Honestly, I’m not sure. Squash is an extremely competitive sport which deserves a lot more recognition that it currently has.
What have been some of the best things that have happened to squash in recent years?
The PSA (Professional Squash Association) is working towards higher prize money for both men and women professional tournaments, so that’s been really good.
The tournament organisers are also stepping it up by moving the all glass squash court across the globe, and tournaments are hosted in incredible places such as the Grand Central Station, The Pyramids, inside a mall in Spain, at a rooftop in Hong Kong, so some very beautiful places.
What about the worst?
The worst was definitely losing to wrestling and skateboarding in the Olympics!
How much has women’s squash changed since you first started, say 10 or 20 years ago?
Women’s squash just keeps improving at a very high rate. If anything, I’d say the level of players is improving drastically as time passes.
Why do you think it is important for women to be involved in sports? Particularly in Egypt but across the world?
I think sports empower and define human beings. I believe that squash has shaped the way I am today and I will forever carry on the values that I’ve learned through the sport and apply them in whatever I do in life. Sports teach you determination, discipline, patience and competitiveness, but they also transform who you are. I’ve traveled the world, seen things I would have never ever seen and I’ve had some incredible experiences because of the sport I play.
I think sports are important everywhere and for everyone, not just in the Middle East. In the Middle East, however, it is crucial that women excel in sports.
If you look at things 30 years ago, women in the Middle East did not have opportunities in sports, it was mostly education and marriage that took priority.
So I think things are changing for the better and everyone should take advantage of that. I would say teenagers and the younger generation should really make the effort to excel in a sport because it will open so many doors and give so many opportunities, like studying abroad at a very low cost in some of the most prestigious universities in the world.
What would you say to young women who are interested in playing squash?
Do your best, be patient, and enjoy the journey. These will be some of the best days of your life and you should embrace it while you can.
Lastly, what can we expect from you on the squash courts in the new future? Is there something you’re looking forward to or keen to share?
I am working on a really big project/ squash initiative now, I cannot fully disclose it yet, but stay tuned!
You can follow Kanzy El Defrawy on Instagram.
Zushan Hashmi is a sports enthusiast who works in the policy space in Australia. He is an avid fan of climbing, football, cricket and all things sport. You can follow him here on Twitter.
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