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As the glass court rises in Grand Central for the 2017 Tournament of Champions, I’m brimming over with anticipation—and delighted that I’ll be courtside for another year of blogging. These are some of the storylines I’m expecting to unfold:
Egypt has been producing great players for a long time, but their current ascendancy is stunning—it’s something the likes of which the squash world has never seen. For both women and men, the current world champions and the defending ToC champions are Egyptian. So are the top three ranked women in the world, and seven of the top ten men, including #1 and #2. Scroll farther down the rankings and you encounter an Egyptian youth brigade fighting its way to the top. The same story holds true among the juniors. Six of the eight winners at the prestigious British Junior Open, held earlier this month, were Egyptian.
Some squash sages fret that this dominance isn’t good for the overall health of the game, and in a sense they have a point—there’s the risk of losing the built-in drama that results when players from opposite sides of the globe face off on court. But that shouldn’t be taken to mean all-Egyptian matches are anything resembling monotonous.
There was a time when it made sense to speak of an “Egyptian style” of squash, but those days are over. The current group of Egyptian stars runs the gamut of playing styles and personalities: it’s impossible to witness the exceptional athleticism of Nouran Gouhar, the fluid movement of Ali Farag, the subtle shot-making of Raneem El Welily, and the thunderous power of Omar Mosaad, and to come away with a single, all-encompassing definition of “Egyptian squash.” Today Egyptian squash simply means great squash, in every facet of the game. It’s a pure pleasure to watch.
No matter who wins or loses, one of the storylines of the ToC this year is going to be how the Egyptian contingent fares as a group. Though I wouldn’t put money on it, there’s a realistic chance that every semifinalist in both the men’s and women’s draws will be from Egypt. The chances of no Egyptians in the semi are, I boldly predict, zero.
Over the past six months the biggest story in men’s squash has been the exceptional performance of Karim Abdel Gawad, who emerged from the pack of talented Egyptians to win the World Championship, taking out #1-ranked Mohamed Elshorbagy in the semis and the mercurial ubertalent Ramy Ashour in the final.
All eyes will be on Gawad as he tries to continue his hot streak at the ToC. If he wins the tournament and Elshorbagy falters, he could take over the #1 ranking. He doesn’t have the typical demeanor of a champion, and that’s part of what makes him fascinating and fun to watch. In place of the win-at-all-costs fire exhibited by the likes of Elshorbagy or Nick Matthew, Gawad has a quiet focus that could almost be taken for nonchalance. He glides around the court and strokes sublime winners with a casual cool that’s unique in the game.
U.S. rooting interest rests in the women’s draw, where Amanda Sobhy will try to better last year’s unprecedented runner-up performance. She’s currently ranked #6 in the world, making her the most successful American-born player of all time, and at 23 years of age she holds the potential to reach even greater heights.
To win this year’s ToC, Sobhy will have to make it past a collection of other young talents who, like her, play with a power and aggressiveness that’s transforming the women’s game. Chief among them are 19-year-old world #2 Nouran Gohar (who Sobhy beat in last year’s semis) and 21-year-old world #1Nour El Sherbini (who Sobhy lost to in the final). If you think of women’s squash as a genteel game, watching these fierce competitors play will put those thoughts to rest.
Over the past several years one of the pleasures of the ToC has been watching the improvement of Miguel Angel Rodriguez, the superquick “Colombian Canon Ball,” whose mind-blowing retrieving skills and unorthodox shot selection took him from the ranks of the qualifying brackets to a place in the semifinals.
In 2017 we may see a similar performance from New Zealander Paul Coll. Like Rodriguez, he’s a speedy, compact figure who runs down balls that no mortal should ever be able to retrieve—often diving through the air in the process. This point against James Willstrop is one of the most remarkable rallies you’ll ever see.
Coll is coming off a groundbreaking win in December’s St. George’s Classic, where he beat Rodriguez, #8 ranked Tarek Momen, and in-form veteran Daryl Selby. His star is on the rise (his January ranking jumped to #20), but he’s still in the ToC’s qualifying brackets, where he’ll be a favorite but not a shoo-in. If he does make it to the main draw, he’s a player worth seeking out. Win or lose, he won’t fail to entertain.
— Matt Lombardi