Rowan ElAraby: Too much pressure after the World Juniors

After initially struggling with the pressure and expectation associated with winning back-to-back World Junior Championships, Rowan Elaraby believes she is now approaching the right mental space to consistently challenge the best players in the women’s game as she gears up for an assault on the senior PSA World Champs title.

Elaraby first made waves as a 16-year-old at the 2017 World Junior Championships, where she upstaged her higher-ranked opponent, Hania El Hammamy, to lift the coveted trophy. A second title followed a year later, with Elaraby becoming just the fourth Egyptian at the time to win back-to-back women’s titles after esteemed trio Raneem El Welily in 2007, Nour El Sherbini in 2013 and Nouran Gohar in 2016 – all three of whom have gone on to reach World No.1 in the rankings.

However, as Elaraby sat down to preview the upcoming 2023-24 World Championships in Cairo, the 23-year-old admitted that this wealth of success on the Junior stage initially came with a number of unexpected difficulties.

“After the two World Junior Championships, everyone expected so much of me,” she said. “It was so pressuring, and it made me go down instead of giving me the boost I needed. Everyone would come and tell me that, which was not helping me. It was quite the opposite, actually.

“I was so happy with the wins, that I forgot about everything else, and the effort I needed to put into training. I think I relaxed a bit after that, and I thought I needed a break and to enjoy my life more.

“I’m now maturing in a way. I can block these comments in a way and I can decide what I want to listen to and what I don’t. I know that if I train hard, I keep working with my coaches and keep working on my plan, it will make me push the top players even more and win titles. It has to come from me and not what people expect from me.

“I want to concentrate on the process and not the wins as much.”

After a tough start to the 2023-24 season that saw Elaraby knocked out in the second round in Paris and the last sixteen stages of the two Platinum tournaments that followed, the Egyptian has since started to rediscover some of her very best form.

In the nine tournaments that have followed, Elaraby has reached at least the quarter-finals on eight occasions, with a semi-final appearance of the Tournament of Champions one particularly noteworthy performance – a run which included superb wins over both World No.4 Nele Gilis and rising star Amina Orfi.

Elaraby’s New York heroics were followed up by an impressive feat in Detroit, with the Egyptian defeating World No.2 Gohar for the first time in eight attempts on the PSA Tour. This runner-up finish at the DAC Pro Squash Classic in February also saw her rise back into the world’s top 10 for the first time since March 2023.

On her season to date, Elaraby said:

“My season so far is good. I wouldn’t say I’m fulfilled with my season, but I’m very grateful for how I’m improving and how I’m looking at the sport with a new perspective.

“I’m talking to my coaches and I’m maturing. I think beforehand I would lose a match and it was the end of the world, but now I do learn from my losses. I’m watching my matches and trying to learn from my mistakes, but also my strengths as well.

“My highlights of this season are that I have pushed the top players. I had a very bad last season and a bad mentality. This season I needed some good wins and to go further in tournaments, so these things gave me a boost to express my squash more and to enjoy what I am doing.

“It made me more certain about the plan I was working on. Everyone needs proof that they are going in the right direction. I think I got it by making it to the semi-finals at the Tournament of Champions and making it to the final of a Silver event in Detroit. Beating [Nouran] Gohar was also quite special to me because I needed one of these wins to boost my confidence.”

Elaraby’s outstanding semi-final victory over Gohar, a fiery but composed performance, was somewhat overshadowed by the moments that followed the match, with Gohar walking off the court without shaking her opponent’s hand.

Reflecting upon this moment, Elaraby said:

“I would say that I didn’t care if she shook hands or not. I mean for me, I was so happy with the win, I didn’t really care. Sport is about winning and losing. It’s not about winning all of the time.

“We play the sport to be healthy, to meet new people, to travel the world and to enjoy it all. You make friends all over the world, so it is quite special to be able to travel while playing the sport that we love. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”

Elaraby will get her 2023-24 CIB PSA World Championships campaign underway in just over a week’s time, with the Alexandria-born player taking on Hong Kong’s Tsz-Wing Tong in her opening match.

If Elaraby is to progress beyond her previous best finish at a World Championships to date, a quarter-final appearance in 2022, she will have to do it the hard way. World No.6 Georgina Kennedy is her most likely third-round opponent, while a quarter-final tie against old junior sparring partner and World No.3 Hania El Hammamy is also on the cards if other results go to seeding.

On what the World Championships mean to her, Elaraby said:

“To me, and to everyone, the World Championships inspires players. When you watch the spirit and the willingness to win, it’s something else.

“I played the World Championships when I was much younger. I think I was 14 when I took a Wildcard to play. I think me and Hania both played that year. It was a great experience and I learnt a lot from it.

“I watched every top player play, and I remember how excited I was. I didn’t care about winning or losing; it was about the fact that I was there competing with the best players at the time.

“Playing now puts more pressure on me; I don’t know why, maybe because it is quite special to me, and I want to prove myself every time I play at the World Championships. I enjoy playing it so much and it brings so many good memories.

“It’s my favourite tournament, and I hope I can do better in the upcoming ones.”