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ToC 2018’s Compelling Storyline (Take 2, and 3, and 4….) Plus Day 6 Previews and Predictions

One of the pleasures of the ToC is its capacity for surprises. One of the pleasures of this blog is guessing what the compelling storylines of the tournament will be, but so far this year I’ve been thwarted by those pesky surprises. Storyline 1 was going to be a Gaultier-ElShorbagy rematch, but Ryan Cuskelly nixed that. My backup storyline, as described in yesterday’s blog, was Nick Matthew repeating Amr Shabana’s late-career heroics. Nick gave it his all, but it didn’t happen.

I’m not giving up. I predict one (or more) of the following events will take its place in the ToC memory book:

  • Nicol David turns back the clock to take the title.
  • Nouran Gohar wins her first major tournament.
  • A husband and wife take the titles. (The two options are El Tayeb/Farag and El Welily/Momen. I wish all four could be in the finals, but the draws won’t allow it.)
  • Ramy wins on his return to Grand Central.
  • El Sherbini and Gaultier win, making it the first time in the ToC’s gender-equity era that the top seeds have won both the men’s and women’s draws.
  • Ryan Cuskelly and Simon Rosner shock the world by reaching the final.

That gives the players lots of options. They better come through for me on at least one of them.

Day 6 Previews and Predictions

1:30: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 22, rank 1) vs. Sarah-Jane Perry (England, age 27, rank 8). Last year Perry upset a top Egyptian, Raneem El Welily, in the quarters; she’ll try to repeat the feat tonight. In her come-from-behind second-round match, she proved adept at slowing the pace and controlling the middle of the court, and it’s likely she’ll use the same strategy again. El Sherbini has risen to #1 in the world with an impressive mix of power, precision, and discipline. Every time she steps on court she’s the favorite. Prediction: El Sherbini, 3-1.

2:15: Laura Massaro (England, age 34, rank 4) vs. Nouran Gohar (Egypt, age 20, rank 5). Gohar plays at the highest pace of any woman on the tour. She’s come through the first two rounds in good form, not dropping a game. The road has been rockier for Massaro, who had to draw on her trademark tenacity to win two five-game battles. Expect her to extend points and vary the pace with the aim of neutralizing Gohar’s power. Prediction: Massaro, 3-2.

5:00: Camille Serme (France, age 28, rank 3) vs. Nicol David (Malaysia, age 34, rank 6). When you get past their differences in age and origin, these two are surprisingly similar players. David, an eight-time world champion, earned the nickname “the Duracell Bunny” early in her career for her relentless drive and persistent retrieving, but in recent years she’s developed a more attacking style. Like David, Serme likes to get to the ball early and to mix paces and height. Both have the ability maintain a steely focus through nerve-racking battles. Prediction: My gut says Serme will win, but my sentimental side is insisting that I pick Nicol. David, 3-2.

5:45: Tarek Momen (Egypt, age 29, rank 7) vs. Ryan Cuskelly (Australia, age 30, rank 13). It’s been a tournament of upsets on the men’s side, and none was bigger than Cuskelly’s win over world champion Mohamed ElShorbagy. In that match he showed he can maintain his pinpoint shot-making and nimble movement through five games against one of the strongest players in the world. Momen will push those talents to the limit. He may be the fastest player in the game, and he has a unique style that focuses on counterattacking at the front of the court. Prediction: Momen, 3-1.

7:30: Raneem El Welily (Egypt, age 29, rank 2) vs. Nour El Tayeb (Egypt, age 24, rank 7). El Welily, the reigning world champion, is the most skilled shot-maker in the women’s game, but she can run hot and cold, as she showed in her five-game second-round win over Tesni Evans. El Tayeb will use speed and creative attacking to try to keep the pressure level high. This will be their fourth meeting since October. El Tayeb won in five games at the U.S. Open; El Welily won in five at the Hong Kong Open and had a straight-game win two weeks ago at the Saudi Masters. Prediction: At Saudi El Tayeb had beaten Serme and David the previous two days. She hasn’t had such a tough lead-up this time, so I think it’s her turn. Prediction: El Tayeb, 3-0.

8:15: Ali Farag (Egypt, age 25, rank 3) vs. Ramy Ashour (Egypt, age 30, rank 14). So far at the ToC Ashour has shown flashes of the incredible shot-making for which he’s famous—and also the not-so-heralded patience and savvy point construction that have been crucial to his winning three world championships. Farag is a remarkable talent in his own right—his is fluid movement and uncanny anticipation are unique in the game. Ashour is more flamboyant and Farag more levelheaded. The match turn out to be a contest of those two sensibilities. Prediction: Farag, 3-2.

–Matt Lombardi