We’re getting down to the nitty gritty at Grand Central, with six quarterfinal matches today. From here on out, every match has the potential to be a great one.
First, a side note for my fellow club players. I’ve been coming down to the court in the morning to watch the players go through their training sessions, and I’ve made one observation I’ll be taking home with me: when they do the boast-drive drill, even the fastest players in the world (I’ve watched Gaultier, Momen, Coll) don’t get back to the T! I’ll be happy to follow their example.
Beyond that, it’s interesting to note that the pros go through the same drills everybody else does: rails, drop-drive, rotating drops at the front. It looks like the secret to squash training is that there are no secrets. How do you get to Grand Central? Practice, practice, practice.
I’m especially looking forward to seeing today’s matches between Nouran Gohar and Camille Serme, and Nour El Sherbini versus Nicol David, but the match of the day has to be James Willstrop against Paul Coll.
One of the stories of the tournament is the rejuvenation of Willstrop. It’s been painful to watch this classy player lose over and over again to his English rival, Nick Matthew, and I thought it was going to happen again in their second-round match Sunday. The storyline was familiar—Willstrop takes the first game, then Matthew digs in and takes control, winning the next two. At that point I thought the match was over. Nope! James bounced back in a way I’ve seen him do many times against other players, but never against Nick. The question now is, how for can Willstrop go? He looks very fit and comfortable on court. The win over Matthew has to be a confidence boost.
His opponent, Paul Coll, is a full-fledged phenomenon. On Sunday he beat one of the best movers in the game, Ali Farag, by moving even better. I’ve never seen a match where so many points ended with the losing player (Farag) giving a little clap of appreciation on his racquet strings—the squash equivalent of raising the white flag, indicating the opponent’s play was simply too good to beat.
What makes Coll fascinating is that he’s a genuinely unique character. Like the New Zealand kiwi, he’s a species not found in these parts. He strikes the ball a little differently (especially on the backhand, where engages his left arm for balance in a more extreme style than any other player). He motors around the court with a thousand tiny steps. And he’s got a bright, fresh-faced demeanor that reminds me a little of an ardent young Mormon missionary.
He’s also a fitness maniac. He’s a practitioner of Cross Fit training. Another note to my club buddies: time to try Cross Fit.
1:30: Nouran Gohar (Egypt, age 19, rank 2) vs. Camille Serme (France, age 27, rank 4). Gohar is a force to be reckoned with. She’s a relentless competitor who dictates the pace of play with powerful drives that keep opponents on their heels. For her part, Serme has developed into one of the world’s best players using a game of controlled aggression: she hits with the power of the young Egyptian but varies her shots with a veteran’s savvy. In 2016 these two played in the British Open and the World Championship, both times going to five games, both times with Gohar the winner. Prediction: History repeats. Gohar, 3-2.
2:30: Laura Massaro (England, age 33, rank 5) vs. Omneya Abdel Kawy (Egypt, age 31, rank 9). These career-long rivals typify the classic distinction between English- and Egyptian-style squash. Massaro’s game is built on consistent, accurate length hitting mixed with judicious attacks, while Kawy lives or dies with high-risk shot-making. Massaro’s rock-solid play makes her the favorite, but if Kawy catches fire she can pull off the upset. Prediction: Massaro, 3-1.
5:30: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 21, rank 1) vs. Nicol David (Malaysia, age 33, rank 7). David is a squash legend—she was the #1 player in the world for an astounding 109 consecutive months, from 2006 through 2015. Nicknamed the Duracell Bunny, she’s an indefatigable speedster who chases down everything and plays devastating counterattacks. In the last year El Sherbini has taken over the #1 position with a power-based game that mixes in flashes of subtle racquet work. They met in last year’s ToC semis, with El Sherbini coming out on top. Prediction: El Sherbini, 3-1.
6:15: James Willstrop (England, age 33, rank 11) vs. Paul Coll (New Zealand, age 24, rank 20). Coll has been a sensation so far in the tournament—his retrieving and kills were out of this world in his second-round win again #7-ranked Ali Farag. He’s proven he can outrace the game’s fastest players, but tonight he’ll battle one of the finest shot-makers and most sage tacticians. Willstrop, a former ToC champ, showed exceptional form in round two against his English nemesis Nick Matthew. Prediction: Willstrop, 3-2.
7:00: Raneem El Welily (Egypt, age 28, rank 3) vs. Sarah-Jane Perry (England, age 26, rank 11). Last night Perry took out American hope Amanda Sobhy in a gutsy, scrappy five-game battle. Tonight she’ll pit her hard-hitting game against Welily, arguably women’s squash’s most gifted shot-maker. Though Perry’s game relies on power and Welily’s on finesse, they both are streaky players whose confidence can ebb and flow over the course of a match. Prediction: Welily, 3-1.
7:45: Karim Abdel Gawad (Egypt, age 25, rank 2) vs. Simon Rösner (Germany, age 29, rank 10). The biggest story in squash over the past three months has been the rise of Gawad, who used a cool head and brilliant shot-making to capture the World Championship and Qatar Classic, beating world #1 Mohamed Elshorbagy twice in the process. He’s a notoriously slow starter; he lost the opening games of both of his ToC matches earlier this week, but found his focus to pull off high-quality wins. Rösner, one of the biggest men on the tour, is the most successful German player ever. He can pound the ball with fierce, chopping drives, but he presence in the top 10 is due as much to his subtle touch at the front of the court as to his power. Prediction: Gawad, 3-1.