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The finals deliver the right kind of tension; a good ToC for the 30-somethings

The hours leading up to the ToC finals were tense. There’s always a fear that after ten days (including qualifying) of world-class squash from 112 talented players, the finasl will turn out to be anticlimactic. Fatigue, injury, and other x factors can derail a finalist’s performance. Sometimes, for no discernable reason, one of the players just has an off day.

Tensions were higher than usual this time because of Greg Gaultier’s performance the night before (described at length in my previous blog). A rumor, unconfirmed, floated around the grandstand that Gaultier’s status for the final was “probable”—meaning, in other words, that it wasn’t a 100% certainty that he would play at all.

The women went on first and quelled some of the concerns. Their match was everything fans could have hoped for—a nail-biting five-game seesaw battle of clean, intense, tactical squash. Massaro tried to slow the tempo and take Serme out of the attacking mode she’s shown over the last few days. It worked for a while, but by game 5 strategy was out the window. It was Serme’s volley crosscourt kills against Massaro’s fierce backhand drives, and Serme’s weapon proved more effective. (That said, I was sitting along the left wall, and getting to watch Massaro’s powerful, swooping backhand up close was a squash nerd’s thrill. No one else hits the ball in quite the same way.)

When the men’s turn came, the Gaultier who strode on court was a different man from the one we’d seen in the semis. No strutting, and no evidence of the previous night’s injury. As the match unfolded, at stressful moments you could see him coaching himself to keep calm and carry on. It was the last thing you might have expected, and though it provided less drama than the semi, it was a relief to see straightforward, high-quality squash from him.

While Gaultier was a changed man, Gawad gave us more of the same thing we’d been seeing all tournament. He’d lost the first game in three of his four previous matches, and he started slowly this time as well, falling behind 1-6 and once again dropping the opener. As the match progressed, he kept getting better and better, cutting down on his errors at the same time he was raising the pace. I think he relied more on power in this match than he had earlier in the tournament; maybe he was blowing off some of the stress of a final. Whatever the reason, the tempo of many points was mind-blowing—the players were trading shots like middleweight prizefighters exchanging flurries of punches. (It was interesting to see how different Gawad’s whip-snap backhand is from Massaro’s pendulum-like swing.)

The crucial points usually turned into an extended series of attacks and retrievals, usually culminating in a Gaultier error. He fought hard and well, but in the end the pressure was a little too much for the Frenchman.

Vets Impress

I think my strongest lasting impression from this year’s tournament, aside from the craziness of the Gaultier-ElShorbagy semi, will be the performances put in by the over-the-hill gang. The champions are in their mid-twenties, the prime performance age for elite athletes, but Massaro and Gaultier proved you can still be at the top of the game in your 30s.

Highlights of earlier rounds included the quarterfinal between Nour El Sherbini and Nicol David, which I thought was the match of the tournament. David lost in the fifth, but she showed she’s still capable of going toe to toe with the best of the young Egyptians.

And it was heartening to see James Willstrop playing like a kid again, beating Paul Coll (the game’s new dynamo), and his rival Nick Matthew, breaking Nick’s ten-year winning streak over James in PSA competition.

Matthew was the oldest man in the draw at 36, and it’s possible to attribute his loss to the effects of time, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Physically he looked to me in good form, but I think psychologically he wasn’t quite as driven to win as he has been in the past. His body still seems willing, and I’m certain his mind can regain its drive. My bet is we’ll see him on court at the ToC next year.

Finally, there was 38-year-old Natalie Grinham, who chose to make the ToC her last professional tournament appearance. She was clearly there for old times’ sake, with no ambition to win, but she acquitted herself well on court, giving Joelle King a good run, and you could tell she enjoyed being out there. It was a classy finale for a great career, ending things on her own terms before moving on to the next stage of her life. She set a great example for Matthew and the other younger players in the tournament, all of whom will sooner or later have to face their own pro-squash mortality.

— Matt Lombardi