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For Egypt This Year, It’s Quality over Quantity

Plus Sunday’s previews and predictions.

Followers of competitive squash know that we live in the era of the great Egyptians. The defending ToC champion is an Egyptian, and so is current World Open champion, and the current #1 ranked player in the world—three superlatives, three different players, one country. Scratch a little deeper and you’ll find Egyptians everywhere: men and women, grownups and juniors (especially juniors).

What got me thinking about this was looking at the current ToC draw and noticing something that feels close to miraculous: this year, there are more Englishmen playing (7) than Egyptians (6). How on earth did that happen?

There are any number of potential explanations. Injuries. Retirement. Maybe even politics. Then, of course, the English are pretty good players too. Their head count doesn’t even include the great James Willstrop, who’s at Grand Central doing commentary for Squash TV this time around while recovering from surgery. (The Squash TV commentary booth—one place where the English still reign unchallenged. I’ve come to think of it as the last vestige of the British Empire.)

Regardless of the explanation, it’s becoming clear that what the Egyptians lack in quantity this year they make up for in quality. Four of the six won their first-round matches; one of the losers was beaten by fellow Egyptian, and the other might have made it through if he hadn’t been on the wrong end of some dubious refereeing decisions. Three out of today’s four matches involve Egyptians, and as you’ll see below I think they’re going to make a clean sweep. Tomorrow the other member of the group, Omar Mosaad is likely to give Nick Matthew a very tough fight.

And then of course there’s the elusive Ramy Ashour, the greatest player of his generation and a candidate for Greatest of All Time. Like Willstrop, he’s currently recovering from surgery, and he may, like Willstrop, be hanging out in Grand Central this week. I get the impression he likes to talk … maybe it’s time for Squash TV to loosen the English grip on the microphone.

DAY 3 PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS

Noon: Borja Golan (Spain, age 32, rank 12) vs. Chris Simpson (England, age 27, rank 23).Golan and Simpson both had come-from-behind five-game wins in the first round, and this could be another long, tough battle. They play similar games—they’re slight figures who glide quickly around the court, retrieving well, changing pace, and attacking judiciously. They both do everything well but nothing extraordinarily well, which means this is likely to turn into a battle of attrition. Prediction: The upset of the afternoon, Simpson, 3-2

12:45: Mohamed Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 24, rank 1) vs. Nicolas Mueller (Switzerland, age 25, rank 20). Since his semifinal appearance here last year Elshorbagy has risen to world #1 thanks largely to improved focus and self-assurance on the court. That’s not good news for Mueller. He likes to play attacking squash, but today he’ll need to curb his aggression, endure Elshorbagy’s offensive arsenal, and hope the young Egyptian has an increasingly rare lapse in concentration.  Prediction: Elshorbagy, 3-0.

2:00: Tarek Momen (Egypt, age 26, rank 7) vs. Saurav Ghosal (India, age 28, rank 24).Momen and Ghosal are two of the smallest and most nimble players on the tour. Expect the highlight of this match to be spectacular retrieving and counterattacks from both of them. The one who hits more precise shots at the front of the court is likely to walk away the winner. Prediction: Momen, 3-1.

2:45: Amr Shabana (Egypt, age 35, rank 3) vs. Cameron Pilley (Australia, age 32, rank 17).Shabana, the defending ToC champion, is respected as the venerable elder statesman of the pro tour, but he maintains some of the mercurial character that marked the early years of his career. He still plays in streaks—incredible winners will roll off his racquet in bunches, but he also can have stretches where his shots go astray and his concentration wavers. Much like Mueller against Elshorbagy, Pilley needs to keep his own error count low and hope to induce a a cold streak in Shabana if he’s going to fashion an upset.Prediction: Shabana, 3-1.

– Matt Lombardi