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Three Kinds of Squash Heartbreak, Plus a Look at Tonight’s Finals

In last night’s semifinals, three of the matches gave us perfect examples of three ways squash can break your heart–three elements of the game that leave players and fans gnashing their teeth and muttering to the gods.

First up was the tense, high-quality match between Amanda Sobhy and Nouran Gohar. I was rooting for the homey, Sobhy, but after she won two tight games I was also rooting for more squash. The third was another close battle. Amanda reaches match ball, 11-10; in the ensuing rally she hits a drop to the front left corner, Nouran counterdrops, Amanda bumps into Nouran as she lunges for the return … and it’s decision time.

The central ref makes us wait for the call, not so much for dramatic effect, I think, as because he hates to end the match this way. “Stroke to Sobhy…” His voice trails off and Amanda pumps her fist in triumph, but she knows that, at least for the moment, her celebration is an act. Before the real joy, we have to go to the video review.

We look up at the screen and watch along as the fourth referee scrutinizes the call from two angles. The angle looking down onto the front of the court is often telling, but in this case Gohar’s shot was too short for the ball to make it onto screen, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions from it (except that Gohar’s shot didn’t sit up). The reviewer is left with the view from behind the court–essentially the same thing the other three refs saw–and … I don’t know. Was that really a stroke?

If this had been a recreational game or an amateur tournament or a league match, I’m certain things wouldn’t have ended there. It was the most vexing element of squash–the 50/50, arguments-could-be-made-either-way interference decision–at the worst possible time, match ball. At such moments, club players have the luxury of skirting the rules. No one wants to end a match that way, so we err on the side of competitive good will. When in doubt, play a let. Especially on match ball.

Pro squash has to answer to a more capricious god–the truth, as determined by the referees. They aren’t allowed to see a decision as 50/50. Shades of gray have to be transformed into black and white. I have a feeling that, with only one viable camera angle, the video ref decided not that the original call was correct, but that he didn’t have sufficient evidence to overrule it. And because the central ref was so slow to announce that original call, I’m sure it was the product of some hand-wringing uncertainty.

But none of that mattered. The match was over, as surely as if Sobhy had thundered a volley into the nick. I don’t mean to take anything away from her win, which she thoroughly deserved, and I know the refs and the PSA administrators agonize over how to make the game as fair and entertaining as possible, but man–that match ended with a whimper, when we were all counting on a bang.

***

I’ve gone on too long about my first point, so I’ll try to be quick about the next two:

  • Last night’s second painful truth: it sucks getting older. It’s hard to tell whether Nicol David put in a below-standard performance against Nour El Sherbini because she was carrying a niggling injury or because she’s slowed a fraction due to age. Which ever is the case, the match was a reminder that squash mercilessly reveals the frailties brought on by aging. You see its effects earliest in elite-level players, but eventually it gets us all.
  • And finally, Greg Gaultier’s injury reminded us that sometimes the toll squash takes can be immediate and massive. Most of the players I know who have gone at the game hard enough and long enough have at some point experienced a hobbling, carry-me-off-the-court injury. Some have never played squash again, and some experience pain or discomfort for the rest of their lives as a result. Most would say it was worth it.

 

Tonight’s Previews and Predictions

For the women, we’ll see two of the game’s fresh faces. For the men, it’s a couple of established stars (and a repeat of last year’s final). Both matches are too close to call, which won’t stop me from trying.

7:00: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 20, rank 5) vs. Amanda Sobhy (USA, age 22, rank 8). The future is now for women’s squash at the ToC. These two young competitors have shown the confidence and poise of veterans as they’ve worked their way through to the final, taking out some of the game’s most accomplished players in the process. They both favor fast-paced, attacking squash, but each has shown the ability to use patience and finesse when the situation calls for it.

Their rivalry dates back to the semifinals of the 2010 World Junior Championships, where Sobhy beat El Sherbini in three tight games and would go on to take the title. The following year they played in the semis again, this time with El Sherbini winning in straight games. She would end her junior career as the only player ever to win the championship three times, in 2009, 2012, and 2013.

From there their paths diverged. El Sherbini became a regular presence on the pro tour, reaching the British Open final at age 16 and the World Open final at 17. Sobhy enrolled at Harvard and spent four years as the undefeated anchor of the women’s squash team, sometimes entering pro tournaments as an amateur. After graduating last spring she became a full-time pro, rising to #8 in the rankings. Tonight is their first meeting in a PSA World Series event, and Sobhy is the first American ever to play in a World Series final.

Prediction: They’ve both been so impressive so up to this point–and so incredibly composed. Sobhy seems to draw nothing but strength from the crowd support and from the significance her accomplishments carry for American squash. I think that will give her the edge. Sobhy, 3-2.

8:00: Mohamed Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 25, rank 1) vs. Nick Matthew (England, age 35, rank 3). This matchup is one of squash’s greatest rivalries and a repeat of last year’s ToC final, which Elshorbagy won 5-11, 11-9, 11-8, 12-10. Over the course of their careers they’ve played 15 times in PSA events, with Elshorbagy winning eight times and Matthew seven.

Matthew is supremely fit and mentally tough. He loves to extend rallies and probe his opponent for weaknesses, both physical and psychological. Elshorbagy is more mercurial. When he’s at his best, he plays with an unbeatable combination of power and precision, but he can have lapses of concentration during which his shots go awry. No matter who takes the title tonight, Elshorbagy is likely to hit more winners, and also to knock more balls into the tin.

Both players are ferocious competitors. They’re capable of raising their level of play at crucial junctures in a match, and they never give up until the final point is over. The result is a history of brilliant and brutal matches between them. Tonight they’re likely to add to that legacy.

Prediction: As disappointing as Gregory Gaultier’s injury last night was, the cold truth is that it was a significant benefit for Matthew. What would surely have been a draining match turned into a rest day for him. He’s not one to let an advantage go to waste. Matthew, 3-1.

–Matt Lombardi