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A Night for a Breakthrough?

Plus Wednesday’s previews and predictions.

Tonight on the men’s side of the card we’re going to see if this year’s ToC will produce an elusive treasure—a breakthrough performance.

The biggest tournaments in men’s pro squash are categorized as “World Series” events. There are usually eight of them every year (with some fluctuation), and the ToC is counted among them. For the past seven or eight years the World Series tournaments have been thoroughly dominated by a handful of players: two playing tonight, Nick Matthew and Gregory Gaultier; the two winners last night, Mohamed Elshorbagy and Amr Shabana; and Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop, both of whom are currently recovering from surgery. Elshorbagy is a recent addition to the group; he got his first major win at the end of 2013 and essentially has taken the seat vacated by Karim Darwish, who retired at the end of this year.

Based on my hasty research, the last time someone not in this League of Superheroes won a major tournament was 2008, when David Palmer took the British Open title. (Palmer was himself a giant of the game, but he belongs to the stars of another generation, along with rivals Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power.) Anthony Ricketts was the last player not in the group to win the ToC, way back in 2005.

The point I’m leading to is that, because of this dynamic, every big tournament has a built-in subplot: will one of the other players disrupt the order of the universe by knocking off one of the squash gods? In tonight’s two men’s matches Simon Rosner and Miguel Angel Rodriguez will be trying to do just that. Their styles of play couldn’t be more different, but they’re both exciting to watch and they’ve both been consistently improving over the last couple of years. If either one pulls off an upset it will be a career-best night for the winner and huge news in squash world.

PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS FOR DAY 6

1:00: Laura Massaro (England, age 31, rank 3) vs. Camille Serme (France, age 25, rank 6).Massaro beat Serme in the 2014 ToC semifinals. It will be interesting to see what’s changed in a year’s time. Both are well schooled in traditional, disciplined squash, so expect extended, tactical rallies. Serme is a quicker retriever and more aggressive about volleying the ball, while Massaro has a more delicate touch and likes to keep her opponent out of sync by varying the pace. Prediction: Massaro, 3-1.

1:45: Raneem El Welily (Egypt, age 26, rank 2) vs. Amanda Sobhy (U.S., age 21, rank 11).Sobhy had an impressive first-round win. She’ll need to raise her game even more if she’s going to repeat the feat against the world #2. Notice how unflappable El Welily is on court—she’s never rushed or out of sorts. Sobhy will need to find a way to break El Welily’s rhythm if she’s going to pull off the upset.Prediction: El Welily, 3-1.

5:30: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 19, rank 4) vs. Nour El Tayeb (Egypt, age 21, rank 8). It’s likely squash fans will be talking about “the two Nours” a lot in the next decade or so. In 2009 and again in 2011 they met in the finals the Junior World Open, with each winning once, and they haven’t taken long to ascend in the senior ranks. Their classic contrast in styles—power from El Sherbini, speed from El Tayeb—make them very entertaining to watch. Prediction: El Tayeb, 3-2.

6:15: Nick Matthew (England, age 34, rank 4) vs. Simon Rosner (Germany, age 27, rank 10).In the previous round Matthew showed one reason why he is so successful: when his opponent got hot, he was repeatedly able to hold on in rallies, wait for an error, and win the point. For the rising star Rosner, a win tonight would be the biggest victory of his career. He’ll have to endure a lot of Matthew-induced frustration to make it happen. Prediction: Rosner, 3-2.

7:15: Nicol David (Malaysia, age 31, rank 1) vs. Alison Waters (England, age 30, rank 5). Like the earlier Massaro-Serme match, this is a repeat of a 2014 ToC semifinal. David has a knack for getting stronger as a game progresses, so Waters will want to strike hard early and then fend off the David counterinsurgency. Prediction: David, 3-1.

8:00: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 31, rank 2) vs. Miguel Angel Rodriguez (Colombia, age 29, rank 8). Rodriguez may be the fastest player in squash. His problem tonight is that Gaultier may be the second fastest. It will make for an entertaining match with some highlight-reel points, but with Rodriguez’s speed advantage neutralized, the difference will hinge on other factors, such as shot-making skill and the ability gradually create advantages in court position over the course of a rally. Those are areas of the game where Gaultier is a master. Prediction: Gaultier, 3-0.

– Matt Lombardi