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Day 3: The Final Round of a Classic Rivalry, Plus Previews and Predictions

The rivalry between Nick Matthew and James Willstrop, which will be played out once more in Grand Central tonight, is one of the defining stories from a great generation of pro squash that’s now in its wane.

I’ll never forget Matthew’s win over Willstrop in the 2012 ToC final—a match the earned him the world #1 ranking. After it had finished, I was in the area under the grandstand where players, press, ushers, and anyone else remotely involved in the tournament congregate. Matthew nearly ran me over as he stormed through, pounded his fists on a folding table, and screamed, “YES!” As I remember it, his eyes were like saucers, and every vein in his body was bulging through his skin. I’ve never seen anyone who wanted to win a squash match more than Matthew did that night.

I think it’s fair to say, based on his temperament, that Willstrop has never felt such a fierce desire to win. And that, as much as anything, explains why Matthew dominated their rivalry—until last year’s ToC, when Matthew’s fury didn’t seem to burn so brightly, and Willstrop managed his first victory in a decade.

The question now is, what will each player bring to the court tonight? I don’t think Matthew’s fury will ever return. He’s had a great career, and he knows it. His hunger, the belly-gnawing hunger that comes from anger and envy and self-doubt, has been sated. Will the desire to extend his grand finale at Grand Central, or to avenge last year’s loss, be enough motivation to bring home another win?

And of course, how will Willstrop counter? I think while Matthew has more loved to win than his rival, Willstrop might just more love to play. I think he’ll view this, sincerely, as just another match. He steps on court, plays whoever else happens to be in there with him, and may the better player win.

Previews and Predictions

Noon: Laura Massaro (England, age 34, rank 4) vs. Fiona Moverly (England, age 30, rank 21). These two tall English women have taken very different paths to their ToC matchup. Massaro, a former World Champion and world #1, is a long-standing star of the game. Moverly quit the tour in her early 20s due to financial constraints, but returned to pro squash in 2014, and at 30 she’s achieved her best-ever world ranking. Prediction: Massaro, 3-0.

12:45: Karim Abdel Gawad (Egypt, age 26, rank 4) vs. Nicolas Mueller (Switzerland, age 28, rank 27). Expect defending ToC champion Gawad to use his brilliant racquet skills to try to keep Mueller—a streaky, high-risk attacking player—from finding his rhythm. Prediction: Gawad, 3-1.

2:00: Sarah-Jane Perry (England, age 27, rank 8) vs. Yathreb Adel (Egypt, age 21, rank 50). Perry, the powerful English veteran, has spent the last year in the top 10, but she gets a dangerous draw in qualifier Abel, who returned from injury in September and immediately notched a win over world #2 Raneem El Welily. Prediction: This could be the women’s match of the day. Perry, 3-2.

2:45: Marwan ElShorbagy (Egypt, age 24, rank 5) vs. Simon Rosner (Germany, age 30, rank 8). The younger ElShorbagy brother is a master of precise, tactically savvy play. He’s likely to extend rallies and look to counterattack against the hard-hitting German. Prediction: My pick for an upset. Rosner’s a world-class competitor, and while ElShorbagy has been in great form, he may come into this match feeling just a little too confident. Rosner, 3-1.

5:00: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 22, rank 1) vs. Joey Chan (Hong Kong, age 29, rank 19). At 22 years of age El Sherbini is firmly established as one of the game’s greats—for the last 21 months she’s been #1 in the world. This is the second straight year she’s meeting the clean-hitting, fundamentally sound Chan in the first round. Prediction: El Sherbini, 3-0.

5:45: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 35, rank 1) vs. Tom Richards (England, age 31, rank 40). World #1 Gaultier is famous for his flamboyant, heart-on-his-sleeve demeanor, but he’s often coolly dominant in early rounds. Richards, who’s made an impressive run out of qualifying, will try to take the Frenchman out of his comfort zone. Prediction: The French General will keep his cool. Gaultier, 3-0.

7:30: Nouran Gohar (Egypt, age 20, rank 5) vs. Marina Stefanoni (USA, age 15, rank 208). With two U.S. under-19 championships already to her name, ToC wildcard Stefanoni is a junior-squash phenom. She meets the most relentlessly up-tempo player on the tour in Gohar, who at age 20 has already spent a year and a half in the world’s top five. Prediction: Gohar, 3-0.

8:15: Nick Matthew (England, age 37, rank 6) vs. James Willstrop (England, age 34, rank 13). For over a dozen years these two rivals have been the stars of English squash. It’s Matthew’s last season on the pro tour, and he’ll be keen to exact revenge for his loss to Willstrop at last year’s ToC. That match ended a 10-year, 19-match head-to-head winning streak for Matthew. Prediction: I’m hoping this will turn out to be a great one. Willstrop, 3-2.

9:00: Olivia Blatchford (USA, age 24, rank 13) vs. Liu Tsz-Ling (Hong Kong, age 26 , rank 36). Blatchford, a New York native, had a banner year in 2017, winning the U.S. national championship and rising into the world’s top 20. Tsz-Ling gutted out a tough five game win in yesterday’s qualifying to reach the main draw. Prediction: Blatchford, 3-1.

—Matt Lombardi