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Day 4: previews and predictions for a day filled with great stories

I can’t remember a day at the ToC that was full of so many subplots. Practically every match has a story behind it or some kind of novel twist—so I’m going to jump right in to the previews and predictions:

Noon: Laura Massaro (England, age 33, rank 5) vs. Olivia Blatchford (USA, age 23, rank 27). Amanda Sobhy is the American woman who grabs the headlines, but Blatchford is another great American story—or, more specifically, a New York story. She grew up in the city’s squash scene, and she’s bound to have a big cheering section behind her. I remember a decade ago her playing in the men’s 4.5 division of a club tournament I also was in—a 13-year-old ball of fire who must have been on the short side of five feet tall. She was a wonder to watch, and playing her was clearly a humbling experience for the adult men matched against her. She it was tough on her, too. She lost a five-setter, I think in the semis, and she took the loss hard. She continues to be a fierce competitor, though she’s no longer quite so prone to wear her heart on her sleave.

Today she plays one of the game’s great veterans in Massaro, the most successful English woman of her generation. Massaro’s elegant game— classic English discipline that’s become more attacking in recent years—will likely be too much for Blatchford to overcome, but expect her to be a presence in ToC’s to come. Prediction: Massaro, 3-0.

12:45: Nick Matthew (England, age 36, rank 4) vs. James Willstrop (England, age 33, rank 11). This has been the rivalry of English squash over the past decade. The two Yorkshiremen are both former world #1s and ToC champions, and they’ve spent their careers fighting it out, sometimes contentiously. Willstrop is one of the most gifted shot-makers in the game, but Matthew’s discipline and determination has given him the advantage in head-to-head matches, 45-12. Their match in the ToC 2012 final was one of the most tense sports contests I’ve ever witnessed. Prediction: Matthew, 3-1.

2:00: Simon Rösner (Germany, age 29, rank 10) vs. Nicolas Müller (Switzerland, age 27, rank 32). While Matthew and Willstrop are rivals, Rösner and Müller are best buds. They’re rooming together for the tournament, and they’re usually each other’s coaches between games in matches. I half expect them to go to the same corner between games today and trade advice. (“Hit more to the back—I’m getting tired.”) They both like hard-hitting, attacking squash, so expect this match to be a good-natured shootout. Prediction: Rösner, 3-2.

3:00: Omneya Abdel Kawy (Egypt, age 31, rank 9) vs. Hania El Hammamy (Egypt, age 16, rank 43). Kawy has been a groundbreaking player for the Egyptian women, playing an aggressive, high-risk style that her younger compatriots have emulated. El Hammamy at only 16 already looks primed to be the next in the line of Egyptian stars. With 15 years between them, this is a classic battle of generations. Prediction: Kawy, 3-0.

3:45: Joelle King (New Zealand, age 28, rank 10) vs. Natalie Grinham (Netherlands, age 38, rank 121). Grinham has been on the tour for 20 years and spent  almost a decade in the top 10, for much of that time perched at #2 behind Nicol David. After a few years as a semiretired mom, she’s chosen to make the ToC the final tournament of her career. Her game is built on wily deception, and today she’ll see if she can pull off a few last tricks against King, New Zealand’s #1. King likes to play at a high pace. Whoever controls the tempo is the likely winner. Prediction: King, 3-0.

5:00: Karim Abdel Gawad (Egypt, age 25, rank 2) vs. Cameron Pilley (Australia, age 34, rank 18). Coolheaded Gawad has been on fire over past three months, winning the World Championship and rising to #2 in the world. Pilley, famously one of the game’s hardest hitters, beat Gawad in five games at the 2015 ToC; he’ll need an exceptional performance to repeat that result. Prediction: Gawad, 3-1.

6:00: Ali Farag (Egypt, age 24, rank 7) vs. Paul Coll (New Zealand, age 24, rank 20). Of all the promising matches today, this is the one I’m most looking forward. It’s a match of the super-retrievers. Coll, one of the hottest players on the tour, is nicknamed Superman for the way he flies after balls, while Farag glides around the court with uncanny anticipation. They play similar games with completely different styles. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I know it’s going to be a thrilling, tight match. Prediction: Coll, 3-2.

7:00: Amanda Sobhy (USA, age 23, rank 6) vs. Donna Urquhart (Australia, age 30, rank 19). Last year Sobhy gave ToC fans a rare thrill, an American in the final. Her unprecedented success has amped up expectations for her this year–she’s the talk of the tournament, and her face is on banners throughout Grand Central and outside along 42nd Street. She’ll take her high-power game to the court tonight against a tall, tough-willed Australian in Urquhart. Their three meetings in 2016 all ended with Sobhy wins. Prediction: Sobhy, 3-1.

7:45: Raneem El Welily (Egypt, age 28, rank 3) vs. Hollie Naughton (Canada, age 22, rank 42). El Welily, the 2015 ToC champ, has phenomenal racquet skills; when she’s on, she can break her opponent’s heart with her casual winners. Naughton is a Canadian up-and-comer whose #42 ranking is a career best. Prediction: Welily, 3-0.

— Matt Lombardi