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Eakins Depicts Rosner-Gaultier Outcome, Plus Previews & Predictions for Tonight’s Finals

The final game of last night’s Rosner-Gaultier semifinal triggered the memory of an image in my head. After a little internet searching, I found the picture I had in mind, courtesy of the great American realist Thomas Eakins:

Related image

Squash is often compared to boxing, and nowhere does the analogy ring more true than at the ToC. The players are surrounded at close quarters by fans who are peering over their shoulders, scrutinizing every move. It’s so intense. Every strength and weakness, mental and physical, is on display.

There are other boxing paintings that better show the intensity of the crowd, but this one captures that crucial moment when you know one competitor is victorious and the other vanquished–something you could feel in your bones last night. The prominence of the ref in the painting also makes it particularly squashlike.

Previews and Predictions for the Finals

Here are my takes on tonight’s finals.

7:00: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 22, rank 1) vs. Nour El Tayeb (Egypt, age 24, rank 7). For hardcore squash fans, Egypt’s two Nours meeting in a ToC final was a “not if, but when” proposition. These friends and rivals have been competing on the world stage since childhood. In 2009 they played in the final of the World Junior Championships, an under-19 event that El Sherbini won at the astounding age of 13. Two years later they met again in the World Juniors final, with El Tayeb coming out on top.

So far in their pro careers, El Sherbini has earned more laurels. She has two World Championships and the 2016 ToC title to her name, and she’s now been the #1-ranked player on the tour for 21 months running, El Tayeb reached the #5 ranking in April 2015 but later that year suffered a shoulder injury that kept her out of competition for six months. Since her return she’s methodically climbed the rankings, reentering the top 10 and winning her first World Series tournament, the U.S. Open, in 2017. Last year the two Nours met in competition four times, with each winning twice.

In typical Egyptian style, they both like to play at a fast pace, but beyond that their games are a study in contrast. El Sherbini is a judicious attacker. She likes to construct points with powerful, precise hitting to the back of the court, forcing loose balls that she can pounce on for winners. El Tayeb more often seeks to gain advantage by wrong-footing her opponent with aggressive cross-courts, drops, and boasts. The effectiveness of both styles was on display in last night’s semis, with El Sherbini dominating Laura Massaro, a finalist last year, and El Tayeb scoring an even more convincing win over Camille Serme, last year’s champion. Prediction: It’s always a coin toss between these two. The last time they played at the ToC, in the 2015 quarterfinals, El Sherbini won in a five-game thriller. I’m expecting another brilliant match, with El Tayeb coming out on top this time. El Tayeb, 3-2.

8:00: Tarek Momen (Egypt, age 29, rank 7) vs. Simon Rosner (Germany, age 30, rank 8). This year’s ToC men’s final gives two of the tour’s most successful character actors a chance to step into starring roles. They’ve both been on the pro tour for more than a decade and hovered in or around the top 10 for the past five years, but neither has had a breakthrough World Series event win. That will change for one of them tonight.

In playing styles, there are parallels between this match and the women’s final. Like El Sherbini, Rosner is a powerful, upright striker. His win last night over Gregory Gaultier was distinguished by exceptional length hitting, which wore down the usually resilient Frenchman and opened up the court for fierce kills and subtle drop shots. Momen, like El Tayeb, plays a more high-risk game featuring creative, unorthodox attacking. He’s also a breathtakingly fast retriever who scurries around the court, digging balls out of the corners and looking for opportunities to counterattack.

Throughout his career, Momen’s acknowledged shortcoming has been inconsistent play, and one of the remarkable things about his semifinal win over Ali Farag is that, even in a major victory, he continued to run hot and cold. Don’t be surprised if it’s more of the same tonight. Momen will hope that his winners outnumber his errors, while Rosner will aim to extend rallies, knowing that Momen may still be feeling the effects of his tense, draining semifinal. Prediction: I think Momen’s legs will wobble just a bit due to last night’s match, and that will be enough to turn things in Rosner’s favor. Rosner, 3-1.

–Matt Lombardi