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ToC as a Sign of Things to Come; Plus, a World Championship in NYC?

First off, a hearty Glückwünsche! to Simon Rosner. He’s been knocking on the door for years now, and at last he’s crossed the threshold and won a major title. The pro tour is fortunate to be populated with lots genuinely good people (including the other men’s finalist, Tarek Momen), but Rosner is right at the top of the list. I don’t think anyone predicted him to win, and I don’t think there’s anyone who isn’t happy to see him take the title. That’s a pleasing combination of characteristics for a ToC Champion.

Rosner is the first unseeded player to win the ToC in the 21 years it’s been played at Grand Central. His victory could be the harbinger of a new, more wide-open field in future ToCs and other men’s PSA tournaments.

For as long as I’ve been paying attention to pro squash, the men’s game has tended to be dominated by a handful of players—three or four guys who go back and forth winning the big tournaments, plus maybe a half dozen more who nip at their heels. It feels now like the top-talent pool is getting bigger.

Along with Rosner’s win, the headline story of the men’s ToC draw was Ryan Cuskelly, currently ranked #15, beating the hottest player on the tour, world champion Mohamed ElShorbagy. You just don’t see upsets like that every day, and it was a shock, but it wasn’t a fluke. As you watched the match unfold, you could see that Cuskelly was every bit ElShorbagy’s equal. He’s not even ranked in the top 10, but put him on a court with any player in the world and Cuskelly stands a fair chance of winning.

Another telltale match was Momen’s first-round win over Mohamed Abouelghar. For my money, that nail-biter, decided 12-10 in the fifth, was the match of the tournament. (Yes, even better than Gaultier-Matthew.) Abouelghar clearly is on equal footing with Momen, and if he’d managed to come out on top in that tight battle, it’s not at all unlikely that he could have taken the same path Momen did all the way to the final. And there are a bunch of other players—most, but not all, young; most, but not all, Egyptian—who are growing threats to win the big titles.

On the women’s side, it looks like things are headed in the opposite direction. The five major tournaments of the season so far have all featured two of three Egyptians in the finals: the ToC winner Nour El Sherbini, ToC finalist Nour El Tayeb, and Raneem El Welily. There’s currently a distance between these three women and every other female squash player in the world—though the three directly behind them, Camille Serme, Laura Massaro, and Nouran Gohar, are always fighting to close the gap.

There are other young Egyptians in the pipeline, but none of them have quite the aura of dominance that the Big Three had as they entered the pro ranks out of the juniors. El Sherbini and El Tayeb are still in the early stages of their careers. Their names are likely to be filling up space on the ToC trophy for the next decade or more.

The current X factor is Amanda Sobhy. Throughout her junior years she was the rival and often the equal of El Sherbini and El Tayeb. If she makes a full recovery from her Achilles’ tendon injury, she could rise to their level again. I admire the Egyptians and enjoy watching them play, but I hope 2018 will be the year of the great Sobhy revival.

And, to Wrap Things Up, a Big Idea

My final thought for this year’s blog feels too monumental to be buried down at the bottom of the page, but here goes anyway.

For the past week I’ve been using the term “world champion” over and over in match previews: “current world champion Raneem El Welily,” “three-time word champion Nick Matthew,” etc. Every time I type those two words, it triggers a thought in the back of my mind: Why isn’t the ToC the World Championship?

The World Championship venue changes from year to year, and sometimes it’s on the site of an annual tour event. The ToC has a buzz like no other tournament in squash—every year the stands are filled from Day 1, and players say over and over that this is the one time during the season when they feel like genuine sports stars. Why not, for one year, make the most fun, most exciting, most intense tournament also the most prestigious one?

There are logistical issues (some that I’m aware of, and others I’m sure as well) that make this a tall order. Also, maybe the popularity of the ToC gives it its own unique prestige that doesn’t require the added luster of a World Championship designation.

Further reflection leads to a more general, possibly more feasible idea: Bring the World Championship to New York. It can be a one-off event, like last year’s tournament in Manchester, or the 2015 championship in Seattle—the first ever on American soil. New York’s infatuation with squash goes beyond Grand Central. John Nimick and his team are the most seasoned event organizers in the game. Challenge them to come up with another great venue and see what they can do.

–Matt Lombardi