Sibling rivalry fuels Pakistan’s medal rush in Penang

Published June 21, 2024
Siblings Sehrish (Left), Mehwish (Middle) and Mahnoor (Right) pose with their accolades at the  PBA 20th Penang Malaysia Junior Open. — Photo via author
Siblings Sehrish (Left), Mehwish (Middle) and Mahnoor (Right) pose with their accolades at the PBA 20th Penang Malaysia Junior Open. — Photo via author

KARACHI: There was an all-Pakistan squash final in Malaysia over the weekend; two sisters going head-to-head for gold. By the end of it all, Mahnoor Ali overcame the challenge of Sehrish Ali to be crowned the Under-13 champion at the PBA 20th Penang Malaysia Junior Open.

It was a thrilling yet bittersweet victory for Mahnoor, who stormed back from losing the first set 9-11 to win the next three games 11-7, 11-8, 11-8: the 11-year-old showing tenacity beyond her years to solidify her ranking among global prodigies.

Her win in Malaysia — a deja vu moment after winning the U-11 title last year — brought her fourth international title, coming just days after she was crowned U-13 champion in Singapore at the Henry Charpentier Lion City Junior Open.

The cool-headed superstar channeled nerves of steel to forge her way into the finals and then fight for the title, even if it was at the expense of thrashing her own sister.

“I put everything aside to focus on the game and give it my best; I had to remember that I was playing for myself and my country,” she told Dawn.

Mahnoor, Sehrish and their elder sister Mehwish will next be in action at the Asian Juniors in Islamabad, where another sibling showdown on the court could well be on the cards.

Mehwish brought the third medal for her family and her country in Penang — where more than 700 athletes from 16 countries participated — when she picked up the U-17 bronze, earning 12 points and moving up in the PSA world squash rankings.

The number one-ranked senior and U-19 player is headed to the World Junior Squash Championships next month after becoming the first Pakistani woman to qualify for the prestigious event.

Pakistan’s success in women’s squash is becoming synonymous with the Ali sisters as the trio won big at the Australian Junior Open with the U-17 and U-13 titles and a U-15 bronze.

The girls’ athletic brilliance has been harnessed by their coach and father Arif Ali, who seamlessly weaves together coaching oversight with parental love.

Mehwish and Sehrish, as per their father, missed the mark in their Singapore matches as the family ran into visa issues, not uncommon for Pakistani passport holders, barely making it in time for the championship after overnight traveling and just one sleepless day to warm up.

Mehwish’s participation at World Juniors in Houston also lies at the mercy of her visa being granted in time, leaving the 15-year-old uncertain of her dream debut.

Arif’s meticulous planning and execution of every aspect of his daughters’ training, nutrition and competition schedules is borne not just out of parental instinct but from a lack of support from the Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF).

“We’ve won two gold, one silver and one bronze medal in Singapore and Malaysia and haven’t received so much as a congratulatory call from PSF or the Pakistan Sports Board,” he told Dawn.

But he doesn’t let the authorities’ indifference rain on the family’s parade.

“I’m immensely proud, not only that they’re playing for Pakistan but also because they have a genuine passion for the sport,” Arif, himself a former squash player, told Dawn over the phone.

He acknowledged that the thrill of both his daughters making it to the finals was overshadowed by the fact that one would triumph while the other conceded defeat.

A sibling showdown is rare but not unheard of in the sport. Only recently, Mohamed and Marwan El-Shorbagy clashed at the CIB PSA World Championships in Egypt while Belgian sisters Nele and Tinne at the ESF European Team Cham­pionships in Zurich.

Sibling rivalry perhaps grants an extra layer of internal competition that most stand-alone athletes don’t have. It is perhaps the reason why the Ali sisters are so ahead of their competition.

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2024

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