Last year gave us something old. This year will we get something new?
Plus Friday’s previews and predictions
The Tournament of Champions last year was it’s own kind of fairytale, as Amr Shabana, the most respected man on the pro tour, turned back the clock and won the title. He continued to play well through the rest of 2014, and now, at age 35, he’s risen to #3 in the world, his highest ranking in four years.
It’s natural to speculate about whether he can repeat the great performance this time around, and I’d be delighted if he did. This year, though, I’m keeping my eye on the next generation.
For nearly a decade now the same handful of players has dominated the game. In that time there’s only been one addition to the elite group, Mohamed Elshorbagy, who in 2014 became the top-ranked player in the world.
I think—and hope—that this year at the ToC we’ll see a breakthrough performance. The two most likely “players on the verge” are Egyptian Tarek Momen and German Simon Rosner. They play different styles—Momen is a pesky gnat, Rosner a burly bear—but they share a maturity and focus on the court that makes them candidates for greatness.
It may be too big a leap of the imagination to believe that one of them will win the tournament, but if either makes it to the semifinals it will be a career-best accomplishment, and possibly a harbinger that the next generation is finally ready to assert itself.
PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS FOR DAY 1’S MATCHES
Noon: Cameron Pilley (Australia, age 32, rank 17) vs. Karim Abdel Gawad (Egyptian, age 23, rank 19). Pilley is best known for hitting the hardest shot ever recorded—a blistering 176mph forehand. Gawad, a gifted shot-maker with a deceptively casual demeanor, will try to keep the tall Aussie off balance with high-risk, high-reward attacking shots. Both of these players sometimes have difficulty closing out matches, so it could come down to a battle of nerves. Prediction: Pilley, 3-2.
12:45: Chris Simpson (England, age 27, rank 23) vs. Cesar Salazar (Mexico, age 27, rank 36). Simpson is an exemplar of methodical English squash, while Salazar is a flashy improviser—which means this could be the squash equivalent of the tortoise vs. the hare. Prediction: Just like in the fairytale, slow and steady wins the race. Simpson, 3-1.
3:00: Saurav Ghosal (India, age 28, rank 24) vs. Alan Clyne (Scotland, age 28, rank 37).Clyne is a hardnosed grinder with a never-say-die attitude. Ghosal is a super-quick retriever. That means we’re likely to see a lot of long points between the two of them. When Clyne is feeling sure of himself he can be tough to shake, and a good win in the qualifying round against Frenchman Lucas Serme may give him the boost of confidence he needs to notch an upset. Prediction: Clyne, 3-1.
3:45: Nicolas Mueller (Switzerland, age 25, rank 20) vs. Campbell Grayson (New Zealand, age 28, rank 51). This is likely to be the most polite match of the day. Both players are mild-mannered and businesslike on court, but Mueller tends to be more patient and precise, which explains his higher ranking. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought Grayson looks and plays like he’s Nick Matthew’s younger brother—similar technique and tactics, but Grayson lacks Matthew’s focus, as little brothers often tend to do. Prediction: Mueller, 3-0.
6:00: Mohamed Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 24, rank 1) vs. Todd Harrity (U.S., age 24, rank 68).Harrity, a former U.S. collegiate champion, is the only American in the tournament, and for the second year in a row has the misfortune of a first-round draw against the fast and furious Elshorbagy. The young Egyptian had a phenomenal 2014, winning five tournaments and rising to #1 in the world. If Harrity were to win this, it would be the biggest upset in the history of the ToC. Prediction: Elshorbagy, 3-0.
6:45: Tarek Momen (Egypt, age 26, rank 7) vs. Adrian Waller (England, age 25, rank 25).Expect a contrast in styles between these two—patient, straight hitting to the back of the court from Waller versus volleys, drops, and deception from the nimble Momen. Momen is prone to streaks of errors, but unfortunately for Waller his streaks of brilliance are more frequent. Prediction: Momen, 3-1.
7:30: Amr Shabana (Egypt, age 35, rank 3) vs. Olli Tuominen (Finland, age 35, rank 29). The two oldest men in the draw are as fit as players a decade their junior, but it’s Shabana’s unequaled racquet skills that make him a heavy favorite. This should be a comfortable first step in his quest to repeat last year’s ToC title. Prediction: Shabana, 3-0.
8:15: Borja Golan (Spain, age 32, rank 12) vs. Ong Beng Hee (Malaysia, age 34, rank 34).The difference between these to veterans is more psychological than physical: Ong is a former Junior World Champion who reached a ranking of #7 at the age of 21 but topped out there and has spent the last decade ranked outside the top 10. He’s an affable character who may be too laidback for his own good (at least on the court). Golan, in contrast, is a late-bloomer who didn’t enter the top 10 for the first time until he was in his 30s. He’s tough, focused, and quick-tempered. Prediction: Golan, 3-0.