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LOOKING BACK IN ANTICIPATION

Great matches from the past decade give a taste of what’s to come in 2016.

The 2016 Tournament of Champions is just around the corner, and anticipating this year’s event has got me thinking back to a decade ago, to the night when I truly and thoroughly fell under the ToC’s spell.

The Power and the Glory

 It was the night of the men’s quarterfinals, and two of the matches on tap were classic battles of experience versus youth. Jonathon Power, the hot-headed 31-year-old Canadian, had just regained the #1 ranking in the world for the first time in over four years, improbably returning to top form after contending with injuries and a seeming drop in focus. He was pitted against the intense, methodical 25-year-old Yorkshireman Nick Matthew, who for a couple of years had been hovering on the cusp of the top 10.

Following them on court would be 32-year-old Scotsman Peter Nicol, the sport’s ultimate gentleman and the dominant player of his generation, who over the previous decade had spent 60 months as the #1-ranked player in the world. He had already announced his intention to retire after the 2006 World Open in the fall; the tournaments leading up to then amounted to his farewell tour. He’d be playing Gregory Gaultier, a high-strung 22-year-old Frenchman whose flashes of brilliance had taken him to a #11 ranking.

The younger players won both of those matches, both in come-from-behind five-game battles that left me and the rest of the crowd in a state of wrung-out squash bliss. The Nicol-Gaultier match was especially memorable—it was an edge-of-your-seat, seesaw fight, and it included what I still to this day consider the best single squash rally I’ve ever witnessed. (Search “Nicol Gaultier 2006 ToC” on Youtube and judge for yourself.)

When the match was over John Nimick came on court and gave a valedictory speech praising Nicol’s illustrious career. The next day, in a move that epitomized the differences between the two great rivals, Power announced that he was retiring too, then and there. No farewell tour for him, just a quick, dramatic end to his career, bowing out while he held the #1 ranking in the world.

What’s Past Is Prologue

 I’m dwelling on that night for two reasons. First, it’s a distillation of what makes the ToC a special event. I’ve watched the tournament every year since then, and each time there have been similar magic matches. (John White versus Gaultier in 2008, Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop the same year, Matthew-Amr Shabana 2011, Gaultier-Ashour 2013, Gaultier-Miguel Rodriguez last year. All I have to do is mention those matches, and a smile is going to cross the face of anyone who was there.)

I’m not just a squash fan, I’m a sports fan, and I can’t think of another setting where you get such intimate access to the world-class athletes as they lay it all on the line. The energy of Grand Central—the buzz of the station, the snuggly packed grandstands, the viewers standing six or eight deep behind the front wall, craning their necks for a view of the action—all of those factors turn that intimacy into intensity. The players feed off of it, and it transforms the game. Those two matches from a decade ago, and the others that have followed, wouldn’t be so deeply etched in my memory if they hadn’t been played in such an ideal sports environment. And I can say with confidence we’ll be getting more of the same this year.

Waiting for the Chicks to Hatch

That night a decade ago marked a changing of the guard. Gaultier would reach the final of the World Open later in the year, lose in agonizing fashion, and go on to lose three more World Open finals before taking the title this past November, nine years after his first attempt. Matthew would become the most successful player in the history of English squash. He’s won three World Opens and spent the past six years ranked no lower than #4 in the world, with 19 months at #1.

They both return to Grand Central for the 2016 ToC, now playing the roles of the old masters. The second reason I’m dwelling on their early, breakthrough wins is that it feels like something similar could happen this year. The squash world is currently packed with young talent, and the glass court at Grand Central is going to be their incubator. Are we going to see a fledgling champion hatched?

One member of the new generation is already a full-grown giant of the game—24-year-old Egyptian Mohamed Elshorbagy, last year’s ToC winner. Most of the other young contenders for greatness are fellow Egyptians. A good half dozen of them are legitimate candidates to win the ToC, if not this year, then in the foreseeable future. I’ll have more to say about them in later write-ups where I preview the tournament field.

Women on the Ascendance

Another great thing about the current ToC is that it’s bringing the women’s game into the spotlight, with a first-ever 32-player draw and prize money equal to the men’s—something that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago. There’s an interesting intergenerational dynamic going on currently in the women’s game, too.

The once nearly invincible Nicol David, who spent nine years as that #1 player in the world, showed signs of vulnerability in 2015, losing seven times to six different players and relinquishing her top ranking. She closed out the year with an impressive win at the Hong Kong Open, and I’d be willing to wager we’ll see her back at #1 again before her career is over, but to do so she’s going to have to fight off a swarm of talented and hungry youngsters—as on the men’s side, most of them Egyptian.

Meanwhile, new to the #1 ranking in January is English 32-year-old Laura Massaro, who before now had spent her career one step behind David. Will she cement that ranking with a ToC win? Will last year’s champion, Raneem El Welily, regain the form that put her in the #1 spot from September through December, before Massaro displaced her? Future blog installments will have detailed previews of the women’s draw.

– Matt Lombardi