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The ToC semis: Squash’s Big Night (with previews and predictions)

No matter the event, every kind of tournament is, of course, a buildup to the climax of the final. In the 12 years I’ve been watching the ToC, though, I’ve found more often than not semifinals night is the best night of the tournament. And that–happy day–is where we are now.

There are a few interrelated reasons why the semis are exceptional. We’re down to four women and four men at the top of their games—they all have to be playing great squash to have made it this far, and they’re all brimming with confidence. With one less hard match in their legs than the finalists tomorrow will have, it’s less likely the quality of their play will be diminished by fatigue. And because there are four matches, even if one for some reason turns out to be a dud, there are still three more chances to witness a classic.

An added psychological element, at least for me as a fan if not for the players, is that the finals mean an end to anticipation. At the end of play tonight we’ll have one more round of drama to look forward to, one more set of predictions to make. After tomorrow night, the party’s over.

So, on to tonight’s matches….

Semifinals Previews and Predictions

5:00: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 21, rank 1) vs. Camille Serme (France, age 27, rank 4). There’s something about Sherbini that reminds me of James Willstrop, the former ToC champ who will be playing in the men’s semis later in the evening. Like Willstrop, Sherbini is bigger than most of the other players; you’d expect her to be a hard hitter who struggles to make it around the court as quickly as her opponents. But like Willstrop, she defies expectations. She is powerful, but in her fantastic quarterfinal yesterday she proved she was equal to the speedy retrieving and deft counterattacks of Nicol David, the quickest and most nimble player in the game. If there’s a quibble with the Willstop comparison, it’s that Sherbini’s success on the court eclipses his accomplishments at the same age. At 21 she’s the current world #1 and reigning World Championship, British Open, and ToC titleholder.

Sherbini has to be the favorite tonight, but Serme is going to be a tough test for her. Serme has been sharp all week and is getting better with each match; her quarterfinal win over world #2 Nouran Gohar was a brilliant display of her game, which combines the power of the young Egyptians with the patience and savvy of a veteran. Last year Serme was Sherbini’s toughest hurdle on the way to the ToC title: they had a back-and-forth, five-game battle in the quarterfinals. Since then they’ve met twice in competition. Serme came out on top in the final of October’s U.S. Open, and Sherbini won at the World Team Championship in December. Prediction: Sherbini played so well yesterday against David that I can’t bet against her tonight. Sherbini, 3-1.

6:00: Laura Massaro (England, age 33, rank 5) vs. vs. Sarah-Jane Perry (England, age 26, rank 11). Perry has been the ToC’s biggest surprise. Her second-round win over Amanda Sobhy was a scrappy battle of nerves. Following up last night with a win over world #3 Raneem El Welily proved that Perry’s success was no fluke. She’s a towering figure known for her power, but both her big wins have been the result of pinpoint drop shots in crucial late-match points.

She’s matched tonight against a daunting opponent—Massaro is the most successful English woman of her generation. She’s stayed atop the rankings by adapting her game, adding more attack in recent years to go with her classic English discipline. The two haven’t played in competition in nearly two years. Their last match was the greatest accomplishment in Perry’s career (at least up until this week): she beat Massaro in five games in the final of the British National Championship. Prediction: Massaro’s veteran toughness will bring an end to Perry’s upset run. Massaro, 3-1.

8:00: Mohamed ElShorbagy (Egypt, age 26, rank 1) vs. Gregory Gaultier (France, age 34, rank 3). In recent years ToC fans have seen ElShorbagy mature from a budding young talent into the #1 player in the world—a rank he’s held for 25 of the past 26 months (with Gaultier taking a turn at the top in December 2015). Despite the dominant ranking, he’s had moments of vulnerability, including losses in the last three tournaments of 2016. His high-octane attacking game has been hitting on all cylinders this week. The two-time defending champion clearly feels at home in Grand Central.

Gaultier is famous for playing in streaks and wearing his heart on his sleeve, but in the ToC’s early rounds he’s shown that his greatest talent is persistent retrieving. After going two games down to Fares Dessouky he dug in and essentially said, “There’s no ball I can’t get before the second bounce.” It worked. ElShorbagy has beaten Gaultier in eight out of their last ten meetings, but there’s been little consistency in the results—some matches are five-game gut-wrenchers, others blowouts. Prediction: ElShorbagy is the sensible pick, but all week I’ve had a hunch that Gaultier will pull off a surprise this year. This is the surprise. Gaultier, 3-1.

9:00: Karim Abdel Gawad (Egypt, age 25, rank 2) vs. James Willstrop (England, age 33, rank 11). Over the past three months Gawad has emerged as a squash superstar. He used a cool head and brilliant shot-making to capture the World Championship and Qatar Classic, beating world #1 Mohamed Elshorbagy twice in the process. If you’ve seen him play in the ToC in previous years, you’ll sense the difference this time around. He still has incredibly soft hands, but he’s a little more fit, a little quicker around the court, and, more than anything, he’s playing with the confidence of a champion. Like Thierry Lincou from back in the old days, he’s a slow starter—he’s lost the first game in every match this week—but spotting his opponent a lead doesn’t seem to faze him.

Willstrop’s play is arguably the story of the week: the former ToC winner has been fleet of foot and deadly accurate with his shooting in wins over English rival Nick Matthew and New Zealand phenom Paul Coll. Watching him play last night was like seeing him emerge from a time machine. After several years marked by injury (including surgery) and a resulting drop in play, he looks now like the young man we saw losing a brilliant ToC final to Ramy Ashour in 2008, and then beating Ashour in the final two years later. Prediction: I don’t know who will win, but I’m confident in predicting this will be one of those matches fans talk about for years to come. Forced to choose, I’m going with the sentimental favorite. Willstrop, 3-2.

— Matt Lombardi