Lisa Aitken on immersing herself in Egyptian culture where squash is king

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Lisa Aitken on immersing herself in Egyptian culture which squash is king
Lisa Aitken on immersing herself in Egyptian culture which squash is king

IN her quest to reach the upper echelons of her chosen sport, Lisa Aitken has chosen to work like an Egyptian.

The Scotland No.1 has taken the bold step of immersing herself in the country where squash is king, more a way of life than a pastime.

Seven of the top 10 men in the world hail from Egypt, as do five of the top 10 women. Their photos are everywhere, emblazoned on to giant posters throughout Cairo International Airport and plastered all over billboards in the capital’s teeming streets.

Aitken has always been intrigued as to what it is that makes the north Africans so good at squash and now she is finding out for herself.

The 32- year-old has hired an Egyptian coach – a former international called Ahmed Effat, who goes by the nickname Kika – has joined a local league and is staying in the country for as long as possible at any given time.

After the recent world championships, the world
No. 32 remained in her Cairo hotel before making the one-hour flight south to El Gouna on the Red Sea for the penultimate tournament of the PSA season, where she progressed to the last 16 yesterday after beating world No.18 Emily Whitlock from Wales.

It is a long slog being away from her Edinburgh flat for so long but Aitken hopes it will ultimately prove worthwhile.

“Egypt is somewhere I’ve always wanted to come,” she says. “All the best players are here. I’ve always been intrigued as to why they’re the best players, what their environment looks like and what makes them special. And the style of squash that they play is probably what lacks in my game.

“It feels more inspiring being in Egypt. I was practising earlier in the week with the No.7 in the world which I certainly wouldn’t get in Scotland. I’m surrounded by top 20 players, male and female, every single day and that gives you people to look up to. So motivation is really high and I’m learning every day.

“When you walk from the plane to the terminal it’s just coated with pictures of all the top players as they’re sponsored by two big banks in Egypt. And it’s the same everywhere. Outside the hotel I’ve been staying in in Cairo there’s a billboard and it’s just full of squash players.

“It’s the national sport here and that’s pretty cool. They don’t have pubs but if you go into cafes and restaurants on the TVs it’s always squash which is unbelievable.

“I’ve been working with a new coach for six months and in that time I’ve had maybe only a couple of trips back to the UK. The majority of our tour events are here at the minute so I’m here a lot. In this stretch I’ve been here for three weeks.

“It’s not the most glamorous life over here – I’m certainly not here for the luxuries! But this is the sacrifice that I’m making to try to make my game more attacking.

“I try not to leave the hotel too much to be honest. I’ll be sold for a camel! I’m just living the quiet life when I’m not training or playing which is how I like it. There are no distractions.

“Next season I’ll look to get an apartment so I’ve got more of a base. I’m used to living in hotels throughout my career but the accumulation over time is still tiring. I’ve got a little bit of OCD so moving from hotel to hotel is a bit stressful as I like to unpack, set everything out nice, pack, unpack, set everything out nice. So if I’m going to be here for longer I need somewhere a bit more homely.”

Aitken has also retained a coach in Ipswich, Lauren Selby, with the Scot being the conduit between the two.

“They bring very different aspects to my game,” she explained. “My coach in England is a female and we met while playing on the tour. She then retired and developed as a coach. I got in touch with her as she had an attacking style of play in her game and I wanted to learn from her. Plus we had a good friendship and I knew we would get along. And that’s important for me.

“The conversation is easy and we connect. I can be more emotional with Lauren and she offers me that support whereas with Kika in Cairo it’s very much all squash. It’s very early in our relationship so maybe as we become closer the emotional side will come into it a bit more.

“They don’t actually communicate with one another which is totally fine. I’m happy to tap into both of them when I need to. They don’t need to be on the phone chatting to each other about what they’re working on with me – I can do that for them.”

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