Sam France reports
Plenty of parents will know the feeling of ‘well, I must be doing something right’, but it is a sensation Dr Ahmed Eissa from Kenilworth in Warwickshire must get to experience every other day.
His children, 12-year-old son Abd-Allah and nine-year-old daughter Mariam are among England’s brightest young squash stars and both are getting ready for the world’s most iconic junior tournament, the Dunlop British Junior Open to be held in Birmingham from 2-6 January.
Ahmed is a former semi-professional squash player, but after moving from his native Egypt in 2006 to further his academic career – he earned his PhD at Durham and now works in the chemistry department at the University of Warwick – he decided to put down his own racket and start passing on his skills to his children.
Taking on the dual full-time roles of father and sports coach was never likely to be an easy task but Ahmed speaks warmly of the experience, one which has clearly brought him closer to his talented children.
“When we came to this country Abd-Allah was six months old,” Ahmed remembers, casting his mind back to the scorching summer of 2006. “When he was three, four, five-years-old he started to pick up the racket just to copy me.
“At the time I was also playing badminton so he also started to pick up the badminton racket and I was actually conscious not to make him interested in badminton because I always liked squash more!
“So I said ok, I’m going to hide all the badminton rackets so he can pick up the squash rackets instead!
It is perhaps an unfortunate truth but one that any eldest child should come to accept: the firstborn can be something of a trial run for parents, ensuring a smoother ride for the next one along.
And so it proved with Abd-Allah’s little sister Mariam, who was born in 2009.
“It was more natural for her,” Ahmed continues, “Because she used to see me and Abd-Allah on court so she started to pick up the racket.
“So they both started playing in County Durham. Then we moved to Warwick in 2014 and since then they have been playing for the county as well.“I think kids are very clever actually, so just from watching they start to pick things up.
“I hardly remember now how I first taught him to grip the racket but it came naturally because he could see me and copy the way I gripped it and things like that.
“With Mariam it was even easier because kids learn from each other even quicker, so she was watching Abd-Allah, listening to me when I was coaching him, and she started to pick it up by herself.
“So when I went on court with her she says ‘Ok, so you want me to do this and this and this’, and she’s repeating what I’ve said to Abd-Allah. She was a very clever child, and she is still!
“I was told by friends at the time that they were very natural, which I believe they were, to be honest.
“Obviously I spent a lot of time with them to make sure that they were doing the right technique and not getting into bad habits at a young age, but I’d say it was a natural process.”
It has clearly been a process that has paid dividends. Going into January’s tournament, Abd-Allah is the U13 European number two, Dutch Junior Open and South West Gold U13 champion, and runner-up at the recent Dunlop British Junior Championships. Mariam is following in her brother’s footsteps in the U11 category, holding the dual titles of 2018 British and English champion for her age bracket.
Despite their tender age, they are used to success, but the last thing their father wants is to put any undue pressure on them.
At that age, negative experiences can have a lasting impact, so Ahmed does his best to make sure that every experience they have of the sport is a good one.
“I’m very proud of both of them, even when they don’t win. But seeing them performing so well and progressing, this is fantastic. As their father and coach, it’s very rewarding for me.
“Travelling with tournaments and things, it takes up a lot of time, effort, and finance for us so seeing them progressing and enjoying what they are doing means everything in the world to us.
“I always encourage them to do their best regardless of the level because they’re still young so it’s not the end of the world if they lose in the first round, as long as they’ve done their best and they respect their opponent.”
Ahmed knows he isn’t perfect, and he accepts that one day his children will benefit from moving onto the tutelage of a new coach, though you suspect this is a day he is dreading.
He points to James Willstrop, the former world no.1 who was coached by his father Malcolm as a positive example but says that being a father and coach at the same time “can be very advantageous or it can be a disaster”.
While he is totally humble about his own achievements, he does not believe it is a role which all parents should attempt to fulfil.
For the time being, Ahmed is making sure Abd-Allah and Mariam are ready for the atmosphere of the Dunlop British Junior Open, and bolstering their preparations with some fitness work.
“This is obviously the most prestigious tournament of the junior calendar,” he says.
“Reaching the finals or winning the tournament would be great for both of them but at the same time I don’t want to put them under any pressure at this young age.”
Enjoyment is key for him, and you get the impression that despite his own passion for the sport, he will not push Abd-Allah and Mariam to take it any further than they want to; if they stop having fun, he won’t force them to play.
Both of the youngsters have high aspirations alongside their sporting dreams, with Mariam wanting to be a dentist and Abd-Allah a vet or an engineer.
But ask any child if they enjoy winning and it is unlikely they’re going to say no.
The Eissa children have packed a lot of winning into their short sporting careers to date. With Dad behind them, it would be no surprise if they added another trophy or two to the mantelpiece in January.