When Nour El-Tayeb found out she was pregnant in late 2020, she recalls becoming very emotional, suddenly forced to grapple with the idea she was going to retire from squash without achieving two of her biggest goals: reaching No. 1 in the world and winning the World Championship.
The Egyptian former world No.3 announced she was pregnant in a raw and heartfelt video, holding back tears as she reflected on her career, and although it sounded like she was hanging up her racquet, her closing statements left the door open for a possible comeback.
“Probably my dad thinks I’m going to do a Serena Williams and come back and play again, my dad believes so much I can do it; I’m not sure,” El-Tayeb said, referring to the tennis superstar who reached four Grand Slam finals after having her first child, Olympia.
El-Tayeb’s father was not wrong.
Although she hadn’t really planned to, El-Tayeb was back training two and a half months after having her daughter Farida — who arrived in July 2021 — and by December she was competing in her first tournament, the Squash Open Black Ball in Cairo.
She enjoyed a winning return, triumphing in her first match back from maternity leave before falling to world No.1 Nour El-Sherbini in the quarter-finals.
According to her husband, squash world No.2 Ali Farag, El-Tayeb doesn’t plan too far ahead and she only felt the urge to start training again and contemplated a possible comeback when she attended the World Championship in Chicago last summer.
“The day Ali won the World Championship in Chicago, I was there with Farida, she was just two weeks old; I got there and I watched Nour (El-Sherbini) and Nouran (Ghoul) compete in the final, I felt like I really wanted to play,” El-Tayeb told Arab News on the eve of the British Open, which begins on Monday in Hull.
“I initially started exercising to lose weight and get fit again after giving birth. I took it step by step at first but as soon as I started exercising I felt like I wanted to try to make a comeback.”
This week’s British Open — one of the most prestigious events on the squash calendar and dubbed “the Wimbledon of squash” — will be just the fifth tournament on El-Tayeb’s comeback tour.
So far, she reached a semifinal in her second event back, pushing world No. 1 El-Sherbini to four games before bowing out, then shocked world No. 3 Hania El-Hammamy en route to the quarter-finals of the 2022 Black Ball Open a few weeks later.
“At first, one of the reasons I wanted to retire from squash — and thank God I got pregnant — was that I felt I was getting too desperate for a while to get to number one in the world. So anything less than getting to number one or winning a tournament really upset me,” El-Tayeb said.
“I felt like I got out of every tournament feeling upset; even if I made a final or had a good result, I would still feel bad about it. So I told Ali I didn’t want to return to squash with this same mindset.
“The mindset I had in the past, I was living a very good life yet somehow I always felt upset, which shouldn’t be the case. So I had hope that having a baby would change my perspective.”
And has her perspective indeed changed?
“I think more or less yes,” the 29-year-old said.
“I still want to win but right now I’m still in the stage where my expectations are low because I just started my comeback and I still haven’t reached a higher level.
“But so far I feel like at least I am putting a bit less pressure on myself because my day is very exhausting and my life doesn’t revolve around me anymore, so either way there is less pressure.”
While other sports have seen mothers make successful returns to competition, such examples are rare in squash.
Ex-world No.2 Natalie Grinham returned to squash after having her first child and re-entered the top 10 before having her second child four years later. Her second comeback was short-lived and she retired from the sport in 2017.
El-Tayeb reached out to Grinham for advice as she made her way back to the tour, picking her brain on various topics, such as breastfeeding alongside training, among other things.
El-Tayeb’s return to professional squash so soon after giving birth has been nothing short of inspiring, and her peers are the first to say it. Her goals remain big and she is attempting to do something no one has ever done before in squash: To summit the rankings and become world champion as a mother competing on tour.
Her comeback has garnered lots of attention and respect, and she admits she didn’t fully grasp the impact it could have when she took her first steps toward returning to the squash court.
“I honestly didn’t expect it to be a big thing but also when I got pregnant, I started to understand how difficult it is and why most women athletes choose to get pregnant toward the end of their professional careers, and not in the middle,” said El-Tayeb.
“I realized how demanding it is. But at the same time it is doable.
“I didn’t realize I would be helping others by serving as an example, but honestly, if I can, especially in today’s world of social media where everyone follows everyone, if I can help people, that’s a very nice thing and it’s something I would love to keep doing.
“In Egypt the norm is to stop competing when you get pregnant, so if my example can maybe help people consider returning to their sport after giving birth, then that’s a very nice thing. Women are susceptible to post-partum depression so exercising is definitely a way to counter that as well.”
El-Tayeb spoke about some of the challenges she has been facing as a new mother competing on tour. As a professional athlete, she was used to having her entire day revolve around her squash and having every part of it geared toward her performing her best in training or at tournaments. That dynamic has completely shifted now that she has Farida.
“I now plan my practices around Farida’s eating schedule and sleep schedule,” she said. “I’m not sleeping well so I have to adjust to lack of sleep or this kind of intermittent sleeping. If I had to pick one thing to be the toughest challenge, it would be the lack of sleep.
“But it’s nice that I’m no longer thinking about squash all the time, I’m not obsessing all the time, ‘Did I play well today? Did I play poorly?’ Now I get back to training and it’s over. Today actually I haven’t thought about squash since I got back from training,” she told me last Thursday.
So far, El-Tayeb and her husband Farag have been alternating parenting duties depending on their tournament schedules, and have been relying on help from their families when they are home in Cairo. On the road, things can get a bit trickier, especially if both of them have matches or practices scheduled at similar timings.
Some of the players have offered to babysit while El-Tayeb is on court and while traveling the tour with an eight-month old can be daunting, she is truly embracing it and is in fact excited about it.
The Farag clan heading to the British Open, which kicks off today in Hull.
Supermom Nour El Tayeb will be contesting just her 5th tournament since returning from maternity leave. pic.twitter.com/kQ2V45oQF3
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) March 28, 2022
“If you lived with us, you’d be in absolute awe of what she’s doing,” Farag tells me of his wife.
“She’s not sleeping enough, she goes to training while feeling tired; she’d have Farida with her and sometimes she’d have to cut her practice short because Farida is crying and she has to feed her. While traveling, it’s match day and she hasn’t slept enough. So many dynamics around her that don’t make it easy to compete; it’s really inspiring to be honest.”
The Farag clan flew to the UK on Saturday ahead of the British Open and a photo of all three of them — Ali, Nour and Farida — napping in the car as they made their way to Hull was posted by world No. 4 Amanda Sobhy with the caption: “When baby Farida is asleep on the road trip to Hull, so are mom and dad.”
While El-Tayeb acknowledges that she is slightly worried about how she will fare in her matches given she has her daughter with her at the tournament, she is relishing the adventure.
“I’m excited that it’s a new experience and a new challenge,” she said. “The last five years, I hadn’t experienced anything new in squash; I had been going to the same tournaments, in the same places. This time the setup is new and fun. Traveling with Farida is nice, having her around helps me not to over-think my matches as I used to in the past. So it’s nice in that sense. I love the idea of traveling Ali and Farida together. So that is, again, a nice experience.”
Farag, who won a title at Wimbledon earlier this month, paid tribute to El-Tayeb in his victory speech and said he was keen to rush back to Cairo to take over the care of Farida while his wife was competing in a tournament in the Egyptian capital.
It was a statement that carries deep value, portraying how much he supports El-Tayeb in her pursuit of a professional career, especially in the face of an Egyptian society that doesn’t necessarily see too many husbands encouraging their wives to work.
“For me, I think this is the nicest message we could try to convey — that a man is encouraging his wife to pursue her career,” said El-Tayeb.
“We see so many people around us in Egypt, across all walks of life, that most men don’t encourage their wives to work. It’s one of the nicest things that my husband is encouraging me and supporting me in my squash career and he is the one who believes I can reach the No.1 ranking today.
“I hope people can see that something like this can only make a relationship between a man and a woman stronger more than anything else.
“When we both won the US Open at the same time (in 2017), I could see that some of the reaction was like, ‘Wow, that’s so nice, look how Ali is supporting his wife’s career’, and stuff like that. So that was a nice message at the time and I hope we can keep that up.”
While El-Tayeb is trying not to put too much pressure on herself as she continues this unexpected comeback, she cannot desert her competitive nature and her innate desire to achieve.
“I really, really want to become No.1 in the world. Even though my expectations at the moment are low, I still wish I could win the upcoming World Championship, which is in two months’ time,” said El Tayeb, who was runner-up to Nour El Sherbini at Worlds in 2019.
“I feel like it’s doable, especially that it’s going to be in Egypt. I really want to win it. That’s still my target, it’s still my dream.”