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#1 Ranking on the Line

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Men’s Final Willstrop v. Matthew

New York, NY – January 25, 2012.

The stage has been set for the first great squash showdown of 2012 as the world’s #1 and #2 players, James Willstrop and Nick Matthew, advanced to the finals of the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions in Grand Central Terminal. Willstrop, who ascended to the top of the world rankings for the first time this month, easily defeated Daryl Selby, 11-2,11-3,11-3. Given Willstrop’s near flawless performances in his first two matches against seasoned players, and the fact that Selby has never beaten Willstrop, the expectation was that Willstrop would certainly move past his unseeded opponent into the finals. The brevity of the match, however, was a bit surprising. Willstrop, the 2010 Tournament of Champions titleholder, ran off 10 unanswered points in the first game, winning it 11-2. “Having played Daryl so many times, I knew there was some kind of problem” said Willstrop after the match. “I could tell by his movement he wasn’t sharp.” All that Selby would say was, ”It was frustrating that I couldn’t play how I wanted to and give 100%.” He declined to elaborate further, although the word around the tournament was that he had bad blisters.

It was a different set of expectations for the Gaultier – Matthew semifinal, with both players having demonstrated a high standard of play and desire to win throughout the week. Gaultier mentioned frequently that he planned his playing and training schedule so he could peak for this championship. Matthew has tried to temper expectations of his return to competition after a two month absence from tournament competition to recover from an injury, but his play through the tournament has been so impressive the expectations have become pretty high.

Although Gaultier held a 10-7 career advantage going into the evening’s match, during the past year, the record has been 4-3 in Matthew’s favor. The intensity of the match was palpable from the start as both players hit solid length and waited patiently for attacking opportunities. Maintaining a lead of two points through most of the first game, Matthew gained the early upper hand with an 11-8 game win. The second was more of the same – Matthew winning 11-9. Gaultier got back into the match when he nabbed the third 11-9. Matthew stepped up the attack in the fourth to take a 6-2 lead and then win the game 11-4. “it was a very tough cat-and – mouse game out there,” Matthew said. “We had a lot of tough rallies down the backhand side.” Ultimately, Matthew’s patience to hit as many rails as he needed to force a Gaultier error or set up a winning shot carried the day.
There will be more than the Tournament to Champions title on the line when the two Englishmen step on court for the final. Matthew, a three time finalist, would very much like to take the trophy for the first time. “I’d certainly like to have my picture be added to the gallery of champions,” said Matthew, referring to the portraits of the tournament’s titleholders that line the entrance to the venue’s Champions/VIP lounge. The #1 ranking will also be at stake. “It’s a motivator,” said Willstrop,”but when you get to play in front of 500 people for the Tournament of Champions title, what more do you need?”

The women’s final matchup will be a test of experience versus youth as 33-year-old Natalie Grinham and 20-year-old Dipika Pallikal play for the title. Experience carried the day – just barely- in Grinham’s semifinal match against 16-year-old Nour El Sherbini. “It’s not fair,” Grinham said jokingly after the match. “She’s half my age and twice my height.” After dropping the first game 6-11, the second seed found her stride, winning the next two games 11-5. But El Sherbini came back in the fourth, winning it 11-7. “Nour changed her game a little bit in the fourth,” Grinham reflected. “I let her dictate the points, thinking that I would let her lose the match rather than trying to win it. So in the fifth, I knew I had to go out to win it.”

Grinham faces another young challenger in the semifinals as a result of Dipika Pallikal defeat of New Zealand’s Jaclyn Hawkes in straight games. The 20-year-old from India was especially effective when stepping in to take an early volley – a playing pattern that was the hallmark of her current coach Sarah FitzGerald. After coming off the court Pallikal’s competitive instincts were evident. “I won’t be happy until I have finished my job and won the tournament,” she said.

Men’s Semifinal Results

[2] James Willstrop (ENG) bt. Daryl Selby (ENG) 11-2,11-3,11-3
25 mins

[1] Nick Matthew (ENG) v. [3] Gregory Gaultier (FRA) 11-8,11-9,9-11,11-4
75 mins.

Women’s Semifinal Results

[2] Natalie Grinham (NED) bt. Nour El Sherbini  6-11, 11-5, 11-5,7-11,11-4
45 mins

[7] Dipika Pallikal (IND) bt. [5] Jaclyn Hawkes (NZL).11-5,14-12,11-9
40 mins

Schedule of Play Wednesday, January 25, 2012 in Vanderbilt Hall, Grand Central Terminal

6:30 PM Women’s Final

[2] Natalie Grinham (NED) v. [7] Dipika Pallikal (IND)

8:00 PM Men’s Final
[1] Nick Matthew (ENG) v. [2] James Willstrop (ENG)