While still only 27 years old, Egyptian squash star Kanzy Emad El Dafrawy has already achieved more than most in her eventful life, but despite having retired from the pinnacle of the sport, she is still setting new goals and is setting out on arguably her most ambitious challenge to date.
Kanzy is putting her vast experience and skills on and off the court to to good use as she launches the UAE’s first high-performance squash academy. The Flying Daf Academy has set out with two key missions — growing the grassroots game in the national and assembling the UAE’s first-ever national squash team.
Kanzy is a former national champion in Egypt and the United States and former world No. 22, and The Flying DAF — which takes its title from Kanzy’s own nickname which she earned for her ability to launch herself across the squash court to reach the unreachable shots — launches this week at the Jumeirah Mina A’Salam in Dubai. The academy has three key focal points — professionalism, community and world-class coaching — all inspired by Kamzy’s own vision on arriving in the UAE.
Kanzy was forced to give up on her dream of becoming the world No. 1 squash player when her time at the top was cut short by a serious back injury. However, that setback failed to dim her passion for squash, and she was soon looking for other avenues in which she could contribute to the sport she fell in love with as a child.
“When I came to Dubai at the age of 24 after I had to quit professionally, I was working four or five jobs and eventually found my way into events management, Kanzy tells Gulf News in an exclusive chat. “I worked at the Special Olympics and Africa Cup of Nations and I quickly realised I was very good at it and it was a huge industry with huge potential in Dubai. However, squash remained my No. 1 passion and I was looking for a way to combine both these elements of my life.
“I took a step back when the pandemic hit last year to figure out what I wanted to do long-term and laid out my visions and goals that could make an impact both here and further afield.
“I plunged into market research for squash in the region and I was astounded to discover there were more than 1,500 squash courts in Dubai, while many of the expats came from countries such as India, Pakistan and the UK, where squash is hugely popular. But still no one here was talking about squash. Why? It may be a niche sport but with the facilities and the keen followers, why is squash not on the agenda?
“I soon realised that the stumbling blocks were accessibility and affordability. Many courts are in exclusive apartment complexes and hotels or require expensive membership to join clubs. There was nowhere to could just book a court and go to play.
“Here is where I saw the opportunity to set up a real squash community in the area, with courts, facilities and training for players of all levels and ages, from five to 60 years old. I wanted to set up a hub where squash can be front and centre of the agenda, and that is what we have done here at Jumeirah.”
Kanzy’s journey to Dubai was eventful to say the least, taking up squash at a very young age, with the encouragement of her parents, to scholarships in the United States and eventually taking the decision to head for Dubai on the spur of the moment after her pro career was cruelly cut short.
“My parents were eager for us to get into sport at a very young age as they were both very keen on sport but never got the chance to pursue their dream, so they made sure we were given that chance,” Kanzy explains. “As a youngster I was involved in many sports such as basketball, volleyball and football, but I fell in love with squash. It is the top sport in Egypt after football and I was attracted to it as it was an individual event. When we won and lost on the basketball or volleyball court, I only felt like a small part of a bigger team. With squash it was all on me and my own success or failure was in my own hands.
“I immersed myself in the sport and my father took me to my first international competition in Germany at nine. I knew I was OK, by I stunned even myself when I saw my level on the global stage. I won the competition and knew this is what I wanted to do. The adrenalin from winning was amazing and I left behind the other sports to focus only on squash. and turned pro three years later.”
Following high school, Kanzi was spotted by a scout for Yale at a competition in the US, and was offered a scholarship. While she found the balance of academics and squash not to her liking, she transferred to Trinity College, Connecticut, where the quality of the squash team was much higher and the academic balance more to her liking, majoring in International Studies and French.
During her time in the US she was still competing regularly professionally, claimed the US National Championship and had risen to No. 25 in the world by the time she graduated.
“Everything was going great at that point, I had by team of coaches, physio, psychologist and nutritionist — the whole team,” Kanzy says. “We were driven to reaching the No. 1 ranking in the world. But then, in 2018, I was struck down by my big injury to my back. It took a major toll on me, mentally more than physically. Many athletes bounce back from serious injury, but I allowed it to take over my mind, and I was so occupied with getting to No. 1. I put too much pressure on myself and I could not perform on the court.
“I took the hardest decision in my life to head home to Egypt and stop playing professionally. Many female players in Egypt play until they are 30, retire, get married and have a family. Close that squash chapter in their lives. I was in a different boat so I began thinking how I could continue to contribute to sport if I wasn’t playing professionally. That’s when, one day — out of the blue — I woke up, packed my bags and headed for Dubai. It was a perfect combination of the Western world, great facilities, but also with an Arabic culture and not too far from home. The rest is history ...”
The academy now boasts five courts right in the Jumeirah community amid a stretch of beachfront hotels, including Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
“The Flying DAF Squash Academy’s approach to training is fully customisable to our players, whatever their level,” says Kanzy, who will be full-time hands on at the centre as head coach alongside her five other elite instructors. “Squash is a sport for all and our holistic approach to high-energy sessions is designed to support player development regardless of ability; we are catering for talents eyeing professional titles, seasoned amateurs and straightforward hobbyists.”
Kanzy goes on to reveal her ambition of launching a UAE team that can compete on the national stage.
“To achieve this, I need to target the schools, particularly middle school, as kids aged between five and 10 are the perfect age to take up the sport,” she says. “I won my first international tournament in Germany at the age of nine, so I have been there myself. I truly believe that within a few years we can begin to see the true talent in the area emerge and compete at the highest levels.”
Kanzy is obviously eager to pay forward her knowledge of the game to the next generation.
“Launching the academy is the culmination of my life, which I have dedicated to the game,” she says. “After winning titles around the world during my professional years, this is my biggest challenge and I cannot wait to share my expertise and experience with Dubai. I have spent seven months working with my coaches so we all have the same philosophy when it comes to our students. We all follow the same model to give our students the best.
“Like everything else in my life, I have always believed in my vision and I know exactly what my dream is with this next chapter.”
As well as coaching classes and membership access to court bookings, The Flying DAF will host monthly tournaments for all levels.
The academy is already accepting membership enquiries, with court bookings available from Friday. Opening hours are 8am to 10pm.
The ball is firmly in your court, Kanzy.