Farag: “Coll’s story is inspiring”

By RJ Mitchell

Fresh from victory over Paul Coll in the final of the 2024 Windy City Open last week, and with the prospect of a rematch at this week’s Optasia Championships on the cards, world number one Ali Farag has admitted that he relishes the challenge of meeting the Kiwi star on court.

The duo, currently sitting at one and two on the world rankings, first met at the Tournament of Champions in 2017. With a total of 28 encounters now behind them, in which the four-time World Champion holds a 20-8 superiority, Farag admits there have been seismic shifts in dominance as the pair have battled for supremacy at the top of the PSA World Tour.

Coll’s successive successes over the World No.1 in their last two encounters of 2023 – in the finals of the US Open and Hong Kong Squash Open – came in gut-busting five set encounters that bristled with intensity and ‘refuse to lose’ mentality, while Farag’s win in Chicago last week came after 71minutes of fascinating squash.

And it is a rivalry that looks set to continue.

Farag and Coll battle at the Windy City Open last week

Reflecting on all of this Farag started at the beginning: “Firstly Paul’s story is the most inspiring on the PSA World Tour and probably one of the most inspiring athlete’s stories I have heard of – not just in squash.

“I knew Paul from juniors and I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that he wasn’t a good player. He played the World Juniors in Ecuador (2010); the same one I played in (lost final v Amr Khaled Khalifa 1-3) and honestly I didn’t even know he was there. This tells you that the level Paul was playing at then, he was not a threat – yet.

“Then he went away for a few years and said: ‘I am going to be the fittest man on earth and I will beat everyone with my fitness,’ which is admirable. Then he came back and he started climbing up the rankings and I met him for the first time in April 2015 in Ireland and although we didn’t play in that tournament, you could tell he was a very fit man and very hard to beat.

“Then he won the Australian Open beating Cameron Pilley and that gave him belief that he could compete with the top-20 players.

“So he was coming up the ranks and he was the hunter. For me I was looking at him and was not sure how he would play, at the beginning he was very hard to play against, but as fit as he was, his squash was quite basic.

“There were no errors, but he did not do much in an attacking sense, so people figured out that there wasn’t a lot that he could threaten you with.”

Coll is known for his extreme physicality and fitness

“I knew Paul from juniors and I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that he wasn’t a good player. He played the World Juniors in Ecuador (2010); the same one I played in (lost final v Amr Khaled Khalifa 1-3) and honestly I didn’t even know he was there”

Ali Farag

First Blood Coll:

Recalling their first encounter Farag said: “So the first time we played at the ToC in 2017, I lost that one (8-11, 8-11, 11-8, 7-11). I had a lot of respect for what he was doing, but was maybe not sure how to play him. He was just extremely fit, so very hard to beat but, if this makes sense, not hard to play against.

“Once I figured that out, our rivalry was tough and every match was hard to play, but I came out on top as Paul didn’t have much to threaten me with.

“I remember Jonathon Power once telling me: ‘You can be three times fitter than, me but I will make you do four times more work than me,’ and that was the mentality I approached every Paul Coll match with back then.”

Paul Coll with Rob Owen after winning the 2021 British Open

Rob Owen Makes The Difference:

But as Ali admitted things were soon to change: “So at that stage Paul was just very fit, but he wasn’t playing at a controlled pace that would conserve his energy. Then he joined up with Rob Owen and Rob changed his tactics, his technique and the way Paul moved.

“He made him very controlled, so it was very hard to get Paul tired and this was when our rivalry took another step forward.

“Paul started to use height very smartly, not just to defend but to attack as well and to build his rallies, which consisted of a lot of lobs and still does, and that was very smart and it still is.

“That made it very hard to beat Paul, especially at the back of the court, and to take the front and the middle of the court away from him. So this is when it got harder.”

Coll celebrates after leaving Farag stranded at the back of the court

Yet Coll’s game has continued to evolve as his great rival admitted: “Then obviously Paul started to build his rallies more on my forehand side, as I like to develop my rallies on the backhand side, and this forced me to go back and work on myself just like Mohamed (Elshorbagy) had made me do previously.

“Basically Paul made me go back to the drawing board and work on my forehand so that he didn’t have the opportunity to switch from one side to the other feeling that I’m weaker on a particular flank and then I got the better of him in the last two matches of last season.”

Current Campaign:

With Coll holding a 2-1 lead prior to the Windy City Open the rivalry shows no signs of standing still: “This season Paul has come back with even bigger improvements and with even more options in the front two corners, and this means now Paul is the complete player in my opinion,” said Ali.

“So I’d say there have been three phases of Paul Coll. First he was the fittest man on earth and very hard to beat, second he was very good in the back corners and built up the rally and third being fit, building up the rally and then attacking the front corners.

“Now Paul has so much to hurt you with in the front two corners, is still exceptionally fit, but now a very complete player and really hard to play against.

“The last two times we played in 2023 Paul got the better of me, but the matches are always played in a very clean manner even though we both kill ourselves to win.

“In terms of watching the whole journey Paul is on, this is very enjoyable to watch from the outside. He is a very smart player, very tough to play against and I just enjoy the challenge of playing Paul.

“Now I would say Paul is definitely my biggest rival out there following on from my rivalry with Mohamed.”

Fired Up For The Next Meeting:

Looking forward, the British and World champion said: “I am very much looking forward to our next match, as first and foremost they are played in a good manner and they get the best out of me.

“But also because I always have to go back and work on something else every time. Just like any player I would love to be the World No.1 forever and it would be great to win every match – but everyone wants to be challenged and to expand his knowledge and ability to become a better player.

“So Paul is one of those guys, along with Diego (Elias), Mostafa (Asal) and of course Mohamed (ElShorbagy), who challenges me the most. I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

5 Matches To Define The Rivalry:

Match 1: ToC 2017: “This showed me how fit Paul was and how hard he was to beat.”

Match 2: Sept 2017 in China: “I realised how hard he is to beat but that he was not the hardest to play against and I figured the way to play against Paul. This stayed for maybe 10 more matches.”

Match 3: British Open 2021: “When Paul first beat me. He had improved so much and had added subtleties, become very smart in the back corners and it was obvious just how much Paul had improved.”

Match 4: World Championships Chicago, 2023: “I had worked so much on changing things to combat Paul, take the tee away from him and that was another turning point.”

Match ‘5s’: “Not a specific match but the last three in France, US Open and Hong Kong, Paul has become so much more attacking, they are all very similar and I view them together almost as one.”

The End Game:

Concluding his fascinating assessment of his rivalry with Coll, the World No.1 said: “So these are the matches that have changed the tides in our rivalry and although that may not be the way Paul sees it, it’s the way I view our rivalry and I love it.”