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One great word about urban squash, plus Day 1 previews and predictions

Grand Central was buzzing with pre-tournament activity yesterday, including pro-am games pitting the likes of Mohamed Elshorbagy and Nick Matthew against locals. A few players from the StreetSquash and CitySquash programs were part of the mix, and they brought with them a cheering section of other young urban squashers.

As the kids were watching, I asked them what urban squash meant to them. A young man a few rows away said something I couldn’t make out, so I asked him to repeat himself. He gave a big smile and called out, “Family!”

If you’re looking for a one-word validation of the urban squash movement, which now includes some two dozen programs nationwide, I don’t think you can do much better than that.

Day 1 Previews and Predictions

The first day features a couple of intergenerational battles—there are 12 years between Daryl Selby and Marwan Elshorbagy, and 14 between Greg Gaultier and Diego Elias. We’ll see if the grownups can hold back the tide of time. Here are my takes on all the matches:

Noon: Ryan Cuskelly (Australia, age 29, rank 19) vs. Max Lee (Hong Kong, age 29, rank 17). These two have come into their own over the last couple of years, both moving up in the rankings through a classic combination of consistent retrieving and strategic counterattacking. Their similar deliberate, rhythmic styles mean we could be starting off the ToC with a long match. I especially enjoy watching Cuskelly play because of the extra hop he has in his step. True to is Australian roots, he bounces around the court like a kangaroo. Prediction: Cuskelly, 3-2.

12:45: Omar Mosaad (Egypt, age 28, rank 9) vs. Mohamed Abouelghar (Egypt, age 23, rank 21). Mosaad is the most powerful figure in squash; expect the glass walls in Grand Central to rattle when he rips a forehand drive. He hit a cold patch over the fall, losing some early-round matches and seeing his rank drop from #3 to #9. It plays to his advantage today that he’s matched against a younger Egyptian—I think he’ll be at ease against a kid he’s had the upper hand over for years. Abouelghar has all the tools of a great player—he’s fast, precise, and a fearless attacker—but he’s still in the process of figuring out what he needs to do to beat the very best players in the world. Prediction: Mosaad, 3-1.

2:00: Marwan Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 22, rank 6) vs. Daryl Selby (England, age 34, rank 15). They’re 13 years apart in age and represent contrasting squash traditions (Egyptian versus English), but these two are at heart both cagey tacticians—you can sense them strategizing like chess players on court. They’ve had some contentious battles in the past, and Selby has been in great form of late, beating Marwan’s brother Mohamed, the world #1, in December. This could be the match of the day. Prediction: Selby seems to be on a mission to cap his career with a strong run in 2017. His extra determination gives him an edge. Selby, 3-2.

2:45: Borja Golan (Spain, age 34, rank 16) vs. Stephen Coppinger (South Africa, age 32, rank 21). Expect a contrast in temperaments between these two veterans. Coppinger has a dogged, never-say-die mentality, while Golan runs hot and cold, often playing his best when he’s fired up over a perceived injustice from the referee. The two different approaches lead to the same end: they’re both fierce competitors who won’t buckle under pressure. This should be another close match. Prediction: Golan, 3-2.

5:00: Tarek Momen (Egypt, age 28, rank 8) vs. Tom Richards (England, age 30, rank 33). In a sport where speed is paramount, Momen is a cheetah, racing around the court to retrieve and counterattack. Richards is a seasoned veteran who likes to shoot from the hip, but a tough qualifying match again Frenchman Lucas Serme may have taken a toll on him. Prediction: Momen, 3-0.

5:45: Todd Harrity (USA, age 26, rank 51) vs. Fares Dessouky (Egypt, age 22, rank 12). Harrity is the highest ranked American in the men’s ranks, but also the lowest ranked player in the ToC draw. He’ll have his hands full against one of the most powerful, most accomplished members of the brilliant young Egyptian contingent. When Dessouky finds an advantage, he grabs hold and doesn’t let it go. Prediction: Dessouky, 3-0.

7:00: Mohamed Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 25, rank 1) vs. Declan James (England, age 23, rank 38). The long-legged Englishman James battled his way through a five-game qualifying match last night; his reward is a meeting with the #1 player in the world and two-time defending ToC champion. Elshorbagy’s talent for mixing power with precision has kept him a step ahead of his Egyptian compatriots—and the rest of the world. A win for James would be an earthshaking upset. Prediction: Elshorbagy, 3-0.

7:45: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 34, rank 3) vs. Diego Elias (Peru, age 20, rank 24). The night ends with another battle of generations. For the past decade, Gaultier has been a squash superstar—his ability to move around the court is second to none, and when he gets in the zone he’s still close to unbeatable. Elias is a two-time world junior champion who should be a prominent presence at Grand Central for years to come. He’s a big guy, but his game is more about brains than brawn. He his tactical savvy is impressive for a youngster. Prediction: Gaultier, 3-1.

— Matt Lombardi