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Survival of the Fittest; Plus Day 2 Previews & Predictions

I’ve had a lousy cold all week, so I like to think I’m especially well equipped to sympathize with a few of the sad souls on the court for ToC’s Day 1. Tarek Momen, Gregoire Marche, and Miguel Rodriguez–three of the game’s most dynamic players–all were suffering some sort of injury of illness. It was painful to watch them struggle through their matches, each fit enough to play, but not to play his best.

The display reinforced a couple of truisms about the game. The first is that these guys are desperate to play. Through the course of the day the thought crossed my mind, “If they’re not 100%, why are they out there?” But pro athletes live in a world of optimism and denial. I’m convinced all of the not-well players stepped onto the court believing they would, or at least could, win. (The most painful part was seeing them realize they were wrong and them watching them struggle to put up a fight what they knew would be a losing battle.)

The second truism is that there’s only a fraction of difference between the great players and the very good ones. How sick was Tarek Momen? How bad an injury was Miguel Rodriguez contending with? They were walking and talking; my perhaps ridiculous supposition is that neither is as bad off as I am right now, sitting here at my computer, laid low by my lousy cold. But they were bad off enough to be summarily run off the court by lower-ranked players. If you’re not firing on all cylinders in this game, the competition is going to leave you in the dust.

I hope everyone on the docket for Day 2 is feeling 100%. Here’s a look at those matches.

Day 2 Previews and Predictions

Noon: Simon Rösner (Germany, age 28, rank 7) vs. Tom Richards (England, age 29, rank 23). These are two big, strong, experienced competitors who like to play at a high pace, so expect the glass walls to rattle. Rösner’s deft touch at the front of the court is what makes him the favorite. Over the past year he’s established himself as a top-10 player, and now the question hangs over him–can he go a step further? Can he beat one of the top three, and maybe even win a major tournament? Prediction: He’ll make the first step toward that goal. Rösner, 3-1.

12:45: Karim Abdel Gawad (Egypt age 24, rank 9) vs. Daryl Selby (England, age 33, rank 15). Gawad is one of the most gifted shot-makers in the game, and improved fitness over the past year has helped push him into the world’s top 10. He has a tough draw again Selby, a hard-nosed, crafty veteran who is likely to vary the pace, extend rallies, and try to frustrate his younger opponent. Prediction: I’m betting on an upset. Selby, 3-1.

3:00: Ryan Cuskelly (Australia, age 28, rank 17) vs. Nasir Iqbal (Pakistan, age 21, rank 36). Cuskelly had a breakthrough year in 2015, rising 30 places in the rankings. He bounds around the court with casual, loose-limbed confidence, establishing a high T position and taking balls early. It should be a fast-paced match against Iqbal, Pakistan’s top-ranked player, who has whippet-like speed and isn’t afraid to attack from anywhere on the court. Prediction: Cuskelly, 3-1.

3:45: James Willstrop (England, age 32, rank 12) vs. Alister Walker (Botswana, age 33, rank 38). These two veterans have been a regular presence at the ToC over the past decade, though last year Willstrop had to sit out while recovering from hip surgery. He had an impressive win in November’s World Championship against Mohamed Elshorbagy; how he plays in the ToC will show whether that marked a return to his previous standout form. Walker will try to counter Willstrop’s precision shot-making by keeping the pace high. Prediction: Willstrop, 3-0.

4:30: Fares Dessouki (Egypt, age 21, rank 21) vs. Todd Harrity (USA, age25, rank 52). American hopes on the men’s side rest with Harrity, a solid all-around player who had a good win in the first round of November’s World Championship. He’ll have his hands full with Dessouki. The young Egyptian is a rising star with a powerful game and the maturity to battle toe-to-toe with his elders. Prediction: Dessouki, 3-0.

6:00: Nick Matthew (England, age 35, rank 3) vs. Diego Elias (Peru, age 19, rank 41). The matchup between the ToC’s oldest and youngest entrants should be a study is discipline and tactics. Elias, the two-time junior world champion, wins by putting fundamentals over flash, but he’s up against the most fundamentally sound and strategically savvy player in the game. Prediction: Matthew, 3-1.

6:45: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 33, rank 2) vs. Ramit Tandon (India, age 23, rank 255). Tandon, the former Columbia University #1, was the surprise of the qualifying rounds, and he’s probably thrilled to be getting on the court with the newly crowned world champion. Prediction: Gaultier, 3-0.

7:30: Marwan Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 22, rank 11) vs. Cesar Salazar (Mexico, age 28, rank 29). There backgrounds are different, but Elshorbagy and Salazar have similar games that employ fluid movement and a strategic mix of patience and daring. But Elshorbagy’s raw talent puts him on a different plane. Prediction: Elshorbagy, 3-1.

–Matt Lombardi