It is semi-final night at Grand Central in the 2010 Tournament of Champions and we have 2 Egyptian players and 2 English players left in the draw. The first match of the night is Karim Darwish versus James Willstrop - world number 5 against world number 7. Darwish is favored (he is actually top seed for the tournament) but Willstrop has been looking good this week and anything can happen.
Willstrop starts off strong and soon takes charge. A few rallies in he hits a low angle into the front left corner, which is not a drop and not a trickle boast – it is in between those 2 shots. But it works and Darwish is left completely flat-footed right behind him, only a step away. I think he was fooled by a very high backswing from Willstrop. Irrespective, Darwish’s movement is suspect and his shots are loose to start with. Unforced errors soon appear in his game. He does still make good use of soft straight volley drops, especially off the back foot on the forehand, probably his best shot. Willstrop meanwhile is hitting devastating winners to the back of the court. Darwish looks settled in finally at the end of the game and hits 3 impressive but meaningless winners – he is too far back in points to catch up. Willstrop wins a pretty one-sided first game 11-6. In the 2nd, as you would expect, Darwish comes out shooting, but he hits a string of tins to go 0-4 down. Then the rallies get tight and Darwish claws his way back to 3-5, after hitting a cross-court drop off the forehand that finds Willstrop struggling to go down and to the left to retrieve the shot. The big man had surgery to his foot last year and we hope that this is not affecting his movement. But Willstrop is tough and does appear physically and mentally ready for this match. He continues using big backswings to keep Darwish on the back foot. He has a massive swing which anyone would struggle to deal with. Willstrop makes a few more errors going down and to the left again trying to reach moving boasts, but his length is still outstanding and wins him the game 11-5.
The 3rd game is more closely contested. Half way through Willstrop slips at the back of the court after a very long hard rally. He stays down on the floor for some time. The crowd is nervous – they know he just had surgery. He finally gets up and buys himself a little more recovery time to check his foot by coming off court and complaining about a slippery floor. The refs protested their innocence, in fact, to their credit, they had themselves swept it twice before the match to avoid exactly this situation. Darwish tries to capitalize on this change of momentum with a few angles in front but he still looks a little slow to move around the court. With the scores tied at 7-7 Darwish hits a high lob that hits the back right corner nick and just rolls softly out. The crowd applauds a great shot. Darwish normally uses the lob as a frequent attacking shot from the front court, but tonight not many of these were successful. Willstrop is very tall and can take the ball from high up, so a lob has to be close to perfect to beat him. Willstrop was very disciplined from this point in the match and gave nothing away. He seems to always play the right shot at the right time and does not try to do too much with the ball. He does not make many unforced errors at all. He only makes errors when pushed. In the end, Willstrop wins it relatively comfortably in 3 games and this match was a good example of how English squash (played well) can be better than Egyptian squash.
The second match of the night was more of a battle and featured world number 1 Ramy Ashour against world number 2 Nick Matthew. From early in the match Ashour uses more of the soft high drops at the front which he used in the previous game to buy himself time and get himself out of trouble. It really looks like a nothing shot, but is surprisingly effective in getting him back into a rally. Matthew knows it is coming and often steps in quick to hit it before it’s on the side wall. He hits many of these this match that come really hard and straight past his body down the middle of the court toward the door (a la Jon White). This shot often gets inside Ashour as his hands are on the left for the quick cut off (aka cross-court volley nick). Nevertheless, Ashour goes 7-2 up off a backhand cross-court nicked drop, we’ve seen that shot before for sure. Ashour wins the next point by forcing a weak cross from Matthew off of a good lob which Ashour hit to the back left corner. This sets up his first backhand volley cross-court nick of the night. Matthews’s lobs are sublime and he gets a few points back, but Ashour is already 9-4 up after a forehand volley cross-court nick, his first of the match (we’ve definitely seen that shot before too). Matthew holds on and hits a forehand trickle boast to go 7-9 and Ashour goes the wrong way. Surprisingly, here Ashour found himself totally committed to going right, in the opposite direction of where the ball is headed. Immediately he starts coaching himself again. This mental focus works and he wins the 1st game on a backhand short cut. He loves that shot too and bounces off the court.
In the 2nd game Ashour is now sporting strapping on his right ankle. We hope he is ok. It would be sad if this show ended in injury. In the 1st point Ashour misses his backhand cross-court nick and Matthew hits an exquisite redrop to win the point. This has always been one of his best weapons. He is good at the counter-attack. Ashour knows this and seems to decide to let the high back-hands go, unlike in the former match when he hit that shot seemingly every other rally. He cannot afford to miss that nick against Matthew. A few points later Ashour plays a high soft drop again which Matthew crushes cross-court requiring Ashour to run the full court to recover the ball from back left. It was an awesome get, but the boast is down and the crowd goes ‘Aaaah’. The crowd appears to be split 50/50 between the players. Ashour then decides itis time to try his favorite shot again - he goes for the cross-court nick off the back-hand volley, but he is too casual and misses it to go down 3-1. A long drop-lob series ensues which ends when Ashour misses a cross-court backhand drop. Half the crowd goes wild; they are urging Matthew along. Ashour is not amused at all, he seems angry, so he hits a return of serve with his favorite shot and nicks it. When the going gets tough he turns to his shots. When they work this is a great idea. But they did not work too well this game. In between rallies Matthew is pointing to the floor. He appears to be indicating a foot fault. And he is right, but the refs have no idea, they enough to deal with during the rallies. To go down 3-8 Ashour dives for a short forehand and almost recovers it. The crowd is impressed with Ashour’s athleticism. Matthews hits a few more really good lobs and tight backhand rails and starts to take control of this game. Matthew gets game ball with a perfect forehand drive, Ashour is there but it’s stuck on the side wall and unplayable. Matthew finally wins an incredible game with a backhand short winner. The game score is now 1 a piece.
In the next game Matthew goes for a few shots early on, but this is not his natural game and he quickly goes 4-0 down. Then he makes a few more errors to go 6-0 down. Some great topspin backhand volley straight kills follow from Ashour. Nobody else can play this the way he does. It must be because of his grip. The Englishman is struggling now and some more errors see him go 9-2 down, the game is all but over. The game ends at 11-2 off an Ashour cross-court backhand drop to the nick. He is back. It is 2-1 to Egypt.
Game 4 starts and I witness one of the best rallies I have ever seen live. Both players do laps around the court after trading a drop-lob series, which repeatedly takes both players all the way forward then all the way back. Ashour wins this crucial rally with a very wide backhand cross-court kill from front left – the crowd goes nuts and he is off talking to himself again… he’s probably saying something like: ‘Good shot Ramy, now just remember to hit that again at the end of the next long rally’. At 4-1 a short cut by Ashour wins the point. Matthew is in big trouble now and is making too many unforced errors. He is now down 5-2 and he comes off the court to complain to the refs about something. You can literally see the match slipping away from him. At 6-2 Ashour does another of his soft high shots in the front and again Matthew is all over it and slams it straight passed his body and seemingly right by Ashour, who brings up his racquet a touch late. But a stroke is awarded to Ashour, which most of the crowd boo's, as they suspect the ball came by way too quick and Ashour could never have hit it. They may have been right, but the refs disagreed. They give Ashour credit for his hand speed. This does not help Matthew at all. He is now 6-3 down and shaken up instead of 5-4 down and coming back. In the next rally the players are both diving across the front wall to retrieve each other’s drops. Matthew appears to nick the ball but Ashour swipes at it and continues play. He gets a let call from the refs who were undecided on whether he actually got it. Matthew comes off again to complain that the ball was on the floor – Matthew's remark to the refs, for the crowd to hear too obviously, was that he (Matthew) is always honest and regularly calls his own shots down, but that nobody else in the tournament does the same. He may have been right about this, and he did get the last (spoken) word in this contest, but unfortunately for him it did not alter the inevitable result. The match ends shortly thereafter. In contrast to the prior match, this one was a great example of how Egyptian squash (executed well) can be better than English squash.
Tonight in the finals of the tournament Willstrop’s high backswing will catch Ashour and will force him to give space to his opponent. And Willstrop’s perfectly tight drives will remove Ashour’s ability to hit winners off the volley, for a while anyway. I think eventually, after enough running, Willstrop will struggle to get down and to the side, off Ashour’s barrage of winning angles in the front. Ashour has volley nicks, 2 wall boasts, trickle boasts and cross-court drops that he will undoubtedly be hitting (everything but a reverse angle basically). It is going to be the best of Egyptian creativity and shot-making versus the toughest of English discipline and consistency. It’s still an international affair and it’s going to be great.