Mazen Hesham: Pragmatism Over Perfection

By RJ Mitchell

If a straw poll were conducted to find the greatest entertainer currently treading the board’s here and now in the world of professional squash, one name would surely be at the top – Mazen Hesham.

Perhaps the aesthetes among our sports cognoscenti may well proffer their undying appreciation of the languid and lethal brilliance of Karim Abdel Gawad as the ultimate purveyor of squash in all its brilliance, but this scribbler would beg to differ and, buoyed by a conversation with the legend that is Jonah Barrington earlier this week, we both agreed that Mazen Hesham’s court sobriquet must now be ‘the great entertainer’.

Every generation has its own shot-making maverick and in recent years we have been lucky enough to enjoy the dexterity, inventiveness, and sheer brilliance of Amr Shabana and Ramy Ashour as two most supreme examples of this. Qamar Zaman, the ‘surprise’ 1975 British Open champion was an artist who at times was as flawless as he was unplayable – even to Geoff Hunt our game’s first professional World Champion, whom he ambushed on that march to British glory.

But returning to the present there is a sense that things are changing with Hesham.

He is 30 at the end of the month but as yet a major title has eluded him. When we spoke to a cacophonic background of horns and hollers in downtown Cairo – as Hesham prepares for the Black Ball Open this week – the sense that pragmatism may be starting to take precedence over perfection thundered.

Hesham poses for the camera in front of the Pyramids at Giza

So does Hesham really, as he enters his fourth decade, believe his time is coming?

“I have always believed I can win a major, that is why I play the sport and especially in Egypt you must have that desire. But now I think it’s more believable and people can see the progress I am making,” said the World No.6.

“Obviously I have always had doubts and also I have a long term injury (labral hip tear and subsequent right hip impingement suffered at 2022 British Open) I need to manage and one that some days is very painful.

“But I’m not going to lie, I think it’s more doable now, it’s a different thing. I have been playing well over the last few months and I have hope it can happen and I will just keep working my way up.

“Of course I want to win every match and I want to win tournaments, but for me if I’m playing every day then I’m happy.

“I am one injury away from all of that going, so I will take whatever I get.”

Last month Hesham made the final of the Canadian Open where the enigmatic Peruvian Diego Elias firmly slammed the door shut in the final on his title ambitions. Yet while ‘The Falcon’ may well have had his wings clipped in the first two stanzas, a determined fight-back seemed to confirm that Hesham is no longer the flighty bird of the past and one who will no longer go away.

So has Hesham shuffled his cards when it comes to approach?

The answer was a straight-bat: “Everybody is different. At the top everyone is working very hard and I think it can just come down to who handles the biggest moments the best.

“Maybe the other guy has a better tactical plan, better discipline, but if you keep trying your best, keep getting in the position, then more likely it will happen.

“The first final I played in Florida (L Asal 1-3) I was almost done and then I played another final three weeks later (Houston: L Farag 0-3) and I felt a bit better and I had two very tough matches consecutively on the way.

“In Canada I was in another final and the more you keep being there, keep being consistent, then why can’t it happen and you can have your day?

“It also can be that on that day you feel better than the other guy.”

As Hesham explained there is another factor when it comes to any tinkering, before he supplies it there is a slight laugh crackling in Cairo, at the other end of the line: “I have said it before and I will say it again an injury can play a big part in changing your game!” shares Hesham.

“But now because of all the work I have done with Cassiano Costa (physio) I have more time to train, to focus on my squash and I have also worked a lot with my mental coach, Neil Roach, on how to be more patient, to play to win and not just to enjoy it.

Hesham holds his hands in despair after losing to Joel Makin at the Manchester Open

“Also on court with my coaches Shehab Essam, and back in Egypt Hossam Nasser, I have worked really hard then also lately I’ve had Shehab with me at the last few tournaments and that support has been really important.

“So from the start of the season I have been pushing more and wanted to make this season the one where people are actually saying: ‘I am watching this guy and he has a chance to win the tournament’, not that I only have one good match and that’s it.

“So having a team helps, having these tough sessions in the US with Shehab and in Egypt with Hossam has really shaped my game.

“So I think I have a chance to get better and I’m going to take it.”

Yet surely this master of the three-wall boast nick enjoys his position as the ‘people’s champion’, if you like the 2024 squash version of what Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins once was for those of us of certain vintage who worshipped at the font of the green baize back in the 80s.

Hesham reflected: “For sure you want people to enjoy your matches and I want to enjoy them as well and I love it when people say like: ‘I’d pay to watch this guy again!’

“But as cruel as it may sound, people always really only remember the winner, so you can play great squash, brilliant winners and the ball rolls flat, the lot, but you lose and it is the other guy they remember.”

“I’ve talked a lot about this with Neil (Roach, mental coach) and we want to start becoming the guy who is the winner.”

Yet if @thesquashfalcon is to soar Hesham must develop an ability to successfully prey on the game’s ultimate big beasts – Ali Farag and Diego Elias.

Turning his attention to current World and British Open champion Farag, he admits: “I have been asked this question a lot and it is a fair enough question as he has been doing really well for so long.

“I think Ali deserves what he is getting, as both on and off the court he is very professional and he loves it so much, he is obsessed with the game in a way I am not.

“But the way he works, he watches all the matches, he knows everything that is going on helps him a lot. Ali is also a very smart guy.

“So these are very good characteristics to have both as a squash player and a person and I look up to Ali on so many things.

“That is why he is at the top and to be able to shake him off the top will not be easy. You could see in Chicago (L: 11-7, 8-11, 11-7, 11-3, 11-2) I was playing better until I lost my mind in the fourth and the fifth, got angry inside, which was not smart of me, but I’m still learning.

“But Ali just keeps coming back and that makes him very tough.”

Ali Farag (EGY) vs Mazen Hesham (EGY) Houston Men’s Squash Open 2024 at Houston Squash Club. Presented by Champion Photo by Collin Poon Kong

When it comes to Elias, Hesham explained: “Diego is there the whole way and the only guy he can’t beat is Ali!

“But for me I hope as time goes, and on and with every time I play these guys, then it will be more 50/50, instead of 80/20 for them as it is right now.

“But Ali is the player you have to beat if you want to win anything major.”

Having just reached the exalted status of World No.6 there is no denying that momentum is with Mazen and he admitted: “I am No.6 and my next target is top-4, I don’t want to put pressure on myself, I just want to keep progressing and not rush things like I maybe did before.

“The way I look at it is if I retire at No.4, it’s fine, if I can get to No.1, then great, win a world championship, fine.

“But, bottom line, I really appreciate where I am now and how things are working and I really hope things can keep going this way.”

Amazingly Hesham’s struggle to manage his wounded labrum is a daily battle, but one he has the upper hand in: “Some days it is really, really painful as it was before Canada, but this is what I’m trying to work on mentally. I can only control what I can focus on and I am very grateful to have Cassiano Costa with me on that.

“Virtually every day I say to him: ‘I think I’m injured and if I push too much something will happen,’ but he will work on it and we will get through it.

“In Canada in the first couple of days I had to play with minimal effort and maybe people thought I wasn’t looking good for the tournament but actually it was tactical.

“It can’t be 100% every day but I am lucky with the skill I have because it can get me through some matches easier but some days I just want to cut my leg off!

“So I continue to do a lot of physio work, a lot of rehab work, If I can manage to keep playing like this for five years we will see about surgery afterwards.”

Now taking a well-earned three week break, Hesham admits that the shadow of an Egyptian World Championships, just seven weeks away, is starting to loom large: “I’m not looking at it like it is everything to win the World Championship, which would be a lie.

“For me I want to be consistent at every tournament then one day it will happen, whether that is at the Worlds or the British Open or maybe a gold event, who knows.

“But if I can keep making finals then my ranking will go up and my chances will improve. So I just have to keep playing each tournament, be consistent and keep building and one day it will be my day.”

A sentiment this great entertainer’s army of fans, including a certain Mr Barrington, will surely share.