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The Fates of the Favorites

Plus finals previews and predictions.

Last night on the men’s side we saw the departure of two crowd favorites in defending champion Amr Shabana and dynamic rising star Miguel Angel Rodriguez. For much of his match Shabana looked as masterful as ever, but he was undone by the moments of lost focus that have been a part of his game from his earliest days on the tour. He’s already the oldest player ever to win a major PSA squash title, but there’s every reason to expect we’ll see him around again for at least another year or two.

 You can say the same, with a bullet, for Rodriguez. He’s been a notable presence at the ToC for a couple of years, but this time around he raised his game to another level, and there’s good reason to think he’ll continue to flourish. At 29 he’s a little old to be moving up the ranks, but I think part of the reason he’s a late bloomer has to do with the fact that he’s from Colombia, which isn’t a hotbed of world-class squash. He didn’t start training with top players until relatively late in his development, but he’s now making up for lost time with a vengeance.

On the women’s side you have to admire Alison Waters’s impressive wins this week, but my favorite player out of all tonight’s four finalists is Raneem El Welily. I’m really impressed by the way she mixes daring play with a confident, levelheaded demeanor. The way she calmly glides from shot to shot and grooves each stroke makes it seem like she’s permanently “in the zone”—even when she’s knocking a ball into the tin. Simply put, she possesses just about every characteristic I wish I had on court.

PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS FOR TONIGHT’S FINALS

6:00: Raneem El Welily (Egypt, age 26, rank 2) vs. Alison Waters (England, age 30, rank 5).For Waters, this year’s ToC is already a high point in her accomplished career. She beat the world #1 in the quarterfinals and followed up by winning a gutsy five-game semi, fighting off three match balls against teen star Nour El Sherbini. She may have her toughest battle ahead of her against the cool and composed El Welily, who, except for two stray weak games, has been a commanding presence in the tournament so far.

It’s a stereotype that the English play methodical, calculating squash, while Egyptians are more risk-taking and improvisational. El Welily’s game is true to type, but Waters also plays a lot like an Egyptian. They both will strive to be the aggressor on court, and you can expect both to earn more points by hitting winners than by waiting patiently for the other to make an error. El Welily won two of their three encounters in 2014, but Waters will be feeling confident after her big wins in the earlier rounds.Prediction: El Welily, 3-1.

 7:00: Mohamed Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 24, rank 1) vs. Nick Matthew (England, age 34, rank 4). Elshorbagy is the current world #1, but Matthew held that ranking at this time last year, and you can be sure he wants it back. They’re both ferocious competitors, with the young Egyptian being more impetuous and the veteran Englishman more cunning. That’s a fair characterization of their squash-playing styles as well. Elshorbagy wins with athleticism and exceptional shot-making, and while Matthew is strong in those departments too, what makes him a champion is psychological: he has an unequalled determination to win. His nickname, the Wolf, is the most apt of any player’s on tour.

At last November’s World Championships, Elshorbagy fanned the flames of their rivalry by saying that Matthew was past his prime. They met in the semifinals, and Elshorbagy backed up the talk with a 3-0 win. That result is bound to give Matthew some added motivation tonight. Expect heated exchanges—definitely during the points, and possibly in between them. Both players will leave everything on the court. Prediction: Elshorbagy, 3-1.

– Matt Lombardi