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Squash as theater of the absurd, plus previews and predictions for tonight’s finals

A few days ago I heard some fans at Grand Central waxing sentimental about Jonathon Power. “He wasn’t just a squash player,” one of them said. “He was an entertainer.” Sometimes his antics could be melodramatic and ridiculous, but that just made them all the more entertaining.

Last night Gregory Gaultier tried his hardest to fill Power’s shoes. For most of the first three games of his match against Mohamed ElShorbagy, he strutted and posed like a pro wrestler, all the while playing exceptional squash that kept him just a nose in front of the world #1. Then the real drama started.

Gaultier was two games up and leading 8-7 in the third, with the finish line in sight, when a rally ended with a questionable pickup by ElShorbagy in the back right corner. New this year, double-bounces can go to video review, and that’s what happened in this case. The players and the sellout crowd watched along on the massive courtside screen as the replay showed what looked for all the world like a squash ball bouncing twice as ElShorbagy stretched to retrieve it. The only person who didn’t see a second bounce was the only one who mattered, the video referee. Pickup good, yes let.

As one, Gaultier and the crowd roared in disbelief. Gaultier the showman was transformed into another character squash fans know well—Gaultier the aggrieved. It was a crucial moment—he would have had a two-point lead and been two points away from closing out the match—and from all appearances he’d been the victim a blown call. The scene was set for a meltdown, and Gaultier delivered, dropping the game and marching off the court in flailing disbelief.

But wait, we’re just getting started! After falling behind in game 4, Gaultier literally falls to the court floor, grabbing his right glute and writhing in pain. Three-minute injury time out; the wounded warrior limps back on court and valiantly finishes out the game with a series of half-pace points that, inevitably, go in ElShorbagy’s favor. Match tied two-two, with an ElShorbagy win looking like a foregone conclusion.

Gaultier is the only one who knows what really happened in game 5, and no matter how he tells the tale, there are going to be fans who won’t believe him. Did he find superhuman strength to fight through the injury and fly around the court like a world-class athlete? Was the injury a brilliant (and highly theatrical) tactical ruse? Or, most likely, was it some of both–a genuine injury, played up for strategic purposes? After the points he lost, Gaultier grimaced, limped, and clutched at his sore butt. When he won, his celebrations were more over-the-top than ever. After one brilliant winner he gave the front wall a full-body hug (and, I’m told by a friend who was watching from the front, sealed it with a kiss).

ElShorbagy wasn’t amused. He also wasn’t able to maintain his focus amid all the drama. After the final point he gave Gaultier a perfunctory handshake and retreated back under the grandstand. The mad Frenchman was in the final.

***

There were, of course, three other matches last night, all commanding wins. For a squash purist, the stories of the tournament have been the exceptional performances by Camille Serme and Karim Abdel Gawad. Serme went on the attack against Nour El Sherbini, keeping the pace high and volleying at every opportunity. The result was a rare sight: the young Egyptian world champion on her heels and out of sorts. Gawad somehow has found a way to get a step quicker than he was in previous years. His retrieving is now on a par with his great shot-making. The combination makes him, at this moment, the best squash player in the world.

Finals Previews and Predictions

7:00: Camille Serme (France, age 27, rank 4) vs. Laura Massaro (England, age 33, rank 5). Serme and Massaro both play textbook all-around games built on tight length mixed with judicious attacks, with Serme generally more aggressive and Massaro more attritional. Massaro’s patient game will be a change for Serme, who beat attacking Egyptians (and the squash’s top two ranked players) in the previous two rounds. Her execution has been so brilliant this week, I think she’ll be up for the challenge. Prediction: Serme, 3-1.

8:00: Karim Abdel Gawad (Egypt, age 25, rank 2) vs. vs. Gregory Gaultier (France, age 34, rank 3). Which Greg will we see on court tonight? Will he be hobbled by injury? Will he be able to summon up his fighting spirit? I hope he’ll be at his best, but regardless, I think the outcome will be the same. Gawad’s play currently is out of this world, and his unflappable character is the perfect antidote to Gallic theatrics. Prediction: Gawad, 3-1.

— Matt Lombardi