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Magic from the Nile

Immediately after World War 2 Mahmoud Karim dominated the sport, winning four British Open titles before the Egyptian he lost twice to Hashim Khan in finals. Here is a profile of him that appeared in 1949.


MAGIC FROM THE NILE Sunday Times 1949

By Gerald Pawle


While the desert battle swirled across the wilderness to the north-west of Egypt’s delta, men snatching precious hours of leave found peace in a green oasis of the Nile. Cross the great Kasr-el-Nil bridge, and the strident clamour of Cairo’s traffic fades. One is at the gates of Gezira, where generations of Englishmen have sought recreation in the grounds of the Sporting Club. It was there, on a summer afternoon six years ago, that I made a fascinating discovery. It was a discovery which no doubt countless games players on leave in Cairo had made before me, but it was still exciting; for I watched an unknown Arab professional playing a British game better than I had ever seen it played before.


I saw sheer poetry of motion. Every litle movement had an effortless rhythm; every stroke he made flowed from perfect co-ordination of mind and body. For a while he seemed content to toy with his gasping, despairing opponent—an Army officer whom I knew to be no mean player—and then he despatched him with a sequence of untakable shots played with an elegance which showed his complete mastery. I even ventured the preposterous step of playing him myself under the broiling Egyptian sun, until he charitably suggested that it might depress me less to take my exercise with Ibrahim, his brother professional, who occasionally made genuine mistakes during a rally.


The name of this magician was Mahmoud el Karim, and he had never played the game outside his native land. “I hear they play very well in England,” he said; “I would like to go there one day, but it is very far away.” Last week I saw Mahmoud el Karim, under the fierce lights of the Lansdowne Club’s match court, carry off what is virtually the Squash Rackets Championship of the World for the third successive time. He was not at his superb best in the final, but those who saw him annihilate N. F. Borrett, the world’s best amateur, in the preceding round will not, I think, dispute his right to be considered the greatest stroke player that this court game has ever known.


Twice in a generation Egypt has produced a player of squash rackets who has stood alone, head and shoulders above his nearest rival. The game owes more to F. E). Amr Bey—now His Excellency Amr Pasha, and his country’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s—than to any other individual. He learnt to play in England, and he raised squash from a test of stamina to an art as delicate and bewitching as any other sporting pastime can show. Now there is Karim, who taught himself in the antiquated stone courts of his club in Cairo, and, adapting his mastery to completely alien conditions in Britain, has become a legend in his own time.


CONTRAST IN TACTICS


Comparison in sport between players past and present is difficult and generally unprofitable, but no subject of conversation recurs more often among players of squash rackets that the discussion of the relative ability of Amr Pasha and his brilliant successor. The tactical approach of each player to the problem of winning matches has, however, seemed to me entirely different. Amr, always wonderfully fit, appeared to regard the game as a form of athletic chess. He was content to wait and work for an opening, even if the preliminary moves to draw his opponent out of position took him 50 strokes. He had the more delicate touch; his angle shots were often little more than a graceful caress, the ball reaching the front wall and dying away as though under hypnosis.


Karim just as fit, and with a longer reach, is all fire and beautifully controlled fury. He is out for the kill from the first second of a rally, volleying smashing, driving, intent always on aggression. He defies the accepted canons of stroke production, making winning shots off the wrong foot and often when completely off balance, and he has more variety in attack than any player who has ever lived.


His mastery defies analysis and understanding. He is “doing what comes naturally.” He has the eye of a hawk, and I suspect he sees a moving ball a split second quicker than the ordinary mortal. He moves like lightning, and his anticipation is so uncanny that the ball seems drawn to him by an invisible thread. But speed alone does not explain Karim’s supremacy. His chief strength lies in his versatility. He plays every stroke the game has ever known, and there is colour and imagination in every move and counter-move.


The first great British player who ever saw him was the late Victor Cazalet, whom Karim defeated at the age of 17. How Cazalet would have marvelled at the rise to fame of the ball boy whom he played only in the primitive open- air courts on Gezira island; for the manner in which Karim has overcome obvious handicaps has been not the least of his triumphs. Until he came to Britain he had played all his life in the bright sunlight; he had never seen a wood floor, but only the queer, uneven stone surface of his own courts, with their far slower pace; and he had never tested his match temperament before the packed, demonstrative galleries who have watched him in this country. But he has met every difficulty with determination and courage, and with his chivalry and faultless court manners he is a champion whom we. should be proud to claim our own.


Already, however, Mahmoud el Karim is home-sick for his own land, where his success has made him a national figure. And a world champion will soon return to the tranquil obscurity of his club by the Nile, where the small Arab boys spend the livelong day sprawling on the green lawns under a burning sun, and few but the unpredictable English dream of playing squash rackets at all.


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