KARIM DARWISH PLAYER PROFILE

It is true that times have changed since the days when coaches sometimes made agreements for players to exist in monastic denial. And it's true that coaching is an increasingly important part of the professional circuit. But just in case you think several days of celebration, a party, and a belly-dancer is taking it too far, you might need to know that Darwish's coach is - to use the term a little loosely - his coach in life. And for life.
 
Engy Kheirallah's relationship with Darwish has long been the squash's most intriguing romance, but now it has taken on new significance since its consummation with a moving and colourful wedding in Alexandria in December.
 
They were bound to attract attention. Two good-looking people, well-educated, courteous, and cosmopolitan, found themselves in a rare predicament, often travelling the world separately, working to reach the top, and still trying to follow the convoluted demands of the heart.
 
Not since the early eighties when Ross Thorne, a world top four man, was courting Rhonda Shapland, later the women's World Champion, has there been anything comparable. For a while the two Australians did extremely well together. But the mutual help passing between the two Egyptians may be even greater. Kheirallah is a talented coach.
 
“My wife, she knows how I am before the match,” Darwish said. “I don't like to talk a lot. I like to concentrate on my matches. I don't like to go out. She's always: 'you have to be more talkative, and forget about the matches.'
 
"But sometimes I am very tense before match. I don't like to talk a lot,” he repeats, perhaps pondering how best to explain it.
 
“Girls are always more relaxed than men,” he settled on. “She doesn't have to win. Just playing for fun. Male players have to win to live.
 
“If I don't win I can't earn my living. I have to get money to live a better life. There are always pressures to win.”
 
Perhaps we should here make it clear: Kheirallah still wants to add to her three World Tour titles, to overtake her highest ranking of twelve and to make the top ten. But she concurs with her husband's views about making a living. As yet only a few women on Tour have that opportunity. So she helps him.
 
“He likes to stay alone, not talking to anyone and really thinking about the match – even a few days before," she says. "He stresses himself a lot. Now he's losing that a little.
“He likes a routine and I'm completely different. I like change. Every now and then he needs something to get him out of the routine.”
 
Darwish says his wife-coach is a good tactically too. But he has a fine all round game and it is his mental focus where he can make the biggest improvement, he feels.
 
“He plays better when he's confident,” she continues. “At some point he was number five and doing just fine. Then he got a few injuries and lost a couple of matches when he knew he couldn't play properly, and his confidence went down.
 
“That's Karim: he keeps blaming himself. He's not an extremely good loser. He needs to move on (after a defeat). But I think he is loosening up a bit.”
 
Through love perhaps. Marriage may also help. So may the completion, after a three-year wait, of their house, in a modern Cairo location about fifteen minutes from the historic Ma'adi area.
 
Nearby is the Wadi Degla Sporting Club, where Darwish plays, situated on thirty-eight acres of sun-baked desert and bounded by a chain of mountains extending into a large canyon.
 
Their house, on three levels, still isn't quite complete, but they moved in anyway by March, and it offers some reassuring features. One is a small roof guest-house, where Darwish's father, mother, and brother Walid reside.
 
Another is its integrated contrasts – an ultra-modern living room with a big plasma TV and a classically-styled reception room. “English and French,” says Kheirallah. “Not American.”
 
It took so long to get the house ready because both of them were away so much. It has made the relief all the greater.
 
“I think it's much easier when you are settled, and you are not in transition,” Kheirallah says. “It's exciting when you are changing your life, but now I hope it gets even better.”
If it does, it could help Darwish edge back upwards.
 
Though he has spent forty-five of sixty-five months in the top ten, it is five years since that first happened, and his highest world ranking, five, last happened four years ago. The climb back after injury was so lengthy; some people suggested he had peaked. Post-nuptial results suggest otherwise.
 
First tournament afterwards Darwish lost to David Palmer, a former World Champion, in Dayton; then he lost to Ramy Ashour, the Super Series Finals Champion, in Toronto, but it was closer. In his third tournament, the Oregon Open, he won the title, beating Thierry Lincou, a former World No.1 and another former World Champion.
 
Then in Virginia in February, he overcame Ashour in five. It was a big win, possibly a significant one.
 
That's because his climb was made still steeper by Amr Shabana's two-year surge at No.1, and the sudden rise of Ashour. Hence Darwish claims his immediate ambition is the top three.
 
Secretly, one suspects, it remains to reach the pinnacle. Even as he proffered the lesser, shorter-term aim, he qualified it by stating his goals are the British Open and World Open.
 
And so our interview concluded, as much of it had been conducted, with the sounds of traffic blaring and honking as he talked and walked through the streets. Despite the twists and turns, the dust and the decibels, he sounded confident of his path and his ultimate destination. With such an unusual coach - in squash, in life, and for life - he may remain so.

By Richard Eaton
Karim Darwish signed a contract with his coach just recently. There won't ever have been one like this before. There was music, dancing, a feast, friends and family, a solemn ceremony, and a binding oath.