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Who’s #1? Plus Tuesday’s Previews & Predictions

An underlying drama at this year’s ToC is the battle for the authoritative yet enigmatic status of #1 player in the world. Rankings are the means by which players measure their success or failure, but they’re cryptic enough that few people have an immediate grasp of how they’re compiled or how the result of a particular match impacts them. Diligent players and coaches will get out their pencils and scratch pads between matches to figure out whether a win or loss will affect their position, but only the most obsessive fan will put in the effort required to know what’s going on. We just see the number by the player’s name, and sometimes hear the buzz around the court, “If so-and-so wins tonight, she’ll be the new #1 in next month’s rankings.”

Count me among those who enjoy the drama but not the math. I suspect that the results of the ToC could give us new #1s for both the women and men, but I’m waiting for someone else to labor through the calculations.

I do understand this much: ranking points are based on a player’s performance over the past 12 months. That means at the end of January any points gained from last year’s ToC drop off the table, replaced by this year’s results. Thus fluctuations in ranking are largely a product of how much better or worse a player did this year than last. For instance, Miguel Rodriguez, the current #5, had the best performance of his career last year in Grand Central, reaching the semis. This year he lost in the first round. When the February rankings come out, he’s no longer going to be #5.

January saw new #1s for both the men and women. On the men’s side, Mohamed Elshorbagy retook the position after dropping it for just a month to Greg Gaultier. Gaultier had leapfrogged Elshorbagy by winning the World Championship in November, but a quarterfinal loss in December’s Hong Kong Open, coupled with Elshorbagy’s win of that tournament, put the young Egyptian back on top.

Elshorbagy won last year’s ToC, so if he wins again this time it will only mean that his ranking points stay the same: this year’s points would replace last year’s. If Gaultier wins, my uneducated guess is that he’ll be back at #1. He lost in the quarters last year, so winning would mean a significant points bump, coupled with a drop for Elshorbagy because he didn’t match last year’s success. (Nipping at their heels is #3 Nick Matthew. If he wins, or if one of the other three remaining players does, I can’t even hazard a guess as to how the rankings will be affected.)

For the women the situation is, if anything, more complicated. Nicol David was #1 for so long that her status seemed etched in stone, but after a few wobbles in 2015, including a quarterfinal loss in the ToC, she was displaced in September by Raneem El Welily. The impact of that success seems to have knocked El Welily off course. In the last five tournaments (including the ToC) she hasn’t reach a final, and on January 1 she lost the top ranking to Laura Massaro.

Massaro played exceptionally well over the fall, winning the U.S. Open and the Qatar Classic, but she also benefited, in terms of ranking, from the cancellation of the World Championship in December. It’s the most points-rich event on the calendar, so when it didn’t happen the most successful players from the previous year—the winner, David, and the other finalist, El Welily—had the greatest loss in points as a result. Massaro, who had lost in the 2015 quarters, didn’t feel as heavy an impact. Even when David beat Massaro in December’s Hong Kong Open it didn’t budge her from her current #3 spot.

Obviously, if Massaro wins the ToC she’ll remain #1. If David wins, my guess is that she’ll regain her #1 status—it would be a big improvement over last year’s quarterfinal loss, and because the ToC has expanded from a 16- to a 32-player draw this year it carries more points. Don’t quote me on that, though. If you see Laura or Nicol wandering around courtside, and you’re feeling nervy, ask them about it. I have a feeling they’ve done the math.

Tuesday’s Previews and Predictions

This afternoon’s quarterfinals are both battles of youth versus experience, and they’re likely to be two of the tightest, tensest women’s matches of the tournament so far. The highlight of the night docket could be on the women’s side as well, with the world #4 and #5 squaring off.

1:30: Laura Massaro (England, age 32, rank 1) vs. Nouran Gohar (Egypt, age 18, rank 10). The matchup of the world #1 against the world junior champion could be a doozy. Gohar is fast, powerful, and aggressive, and she plays with the fearlessness of youth. Massaro is a precise hitter who possesses the wisdom that comes from having seen it all on court. She’s famous for her never-say-die comebacks, but today she’ll want to take command early and prevent Gohar from gaining confidence. Prediction: Massaro, 3-2.

2:30: Amanda Sobhy (USA, age 22, rank 8) vs. Alison Waters (England, age 31, rank 9). The hard-sitting Sobhy used impressive patience and finesse to take out defending champion Raneem El Welily in the previous round, making her the first American-born player in this century to reach the ToC quarterfinals. Today’s match should be more rapid-fire: the veteran Waters, a finalist last year, likes to play at a fast tempo and stretch her opponent to the four corners of the court. Both women will be happy to match strength against strength. Prediction: Sobhy, 3-1.

6:00: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 33, rank 2) vs. Simon Rösner (Germany, age 28, rank 7). This match presents a classic contrast of power from Rösner versus speed and precise counterattacking from Gaultier, the reigning world champion. Gaultier has been near flawless in his ToC matches so far, and he’s never lost a PSA match to Rösner, but the big German looked very sharp in a confidence-boosting win over James Willstrop in the previous round. Prediction: Gaultier, 3-1.

7:00: Camille Serme (France, age 26, rank 4) vs. Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 20, rank 5). These are two of the strongest athletes on the women’s tour, and they won’t be shy about challenging each other with hard drives, kills, and volley nicks. They’ve been frequent opponents: Serme took a tense five-game battle in June’s British Open, and this fall they split two matches, with El Sherbini winning their most recent encounter in the Qatar Classic. Prediction: El Sherbini, 3-2.

8:00: Nick Matthew (England, age 35, rank 3) vs. Marwan Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 22, rank 11). On the squash court Elshorbagy is wise beyond his years. He’ll need to call on all his savvy, as well as his impressive racquet skills, against Matthew, the supremely focused veteran, who tends to grow ever more intense as he progresses through a tournament. His trademark strategy is to extend rallies early in the match, wear his opponent down, and then go in for the kill. Prediction: Matthew, 3-0.

9:00: Nicol David (Malaysia, age 32, rank 3) vs. Omneya Abdel Kawy (Egypt, age 30, rank 6). Kawy had lost to David 24 times in a row dating back to 2002 before upsetting her this past June at the Alexandria International Open. David exacted revenge in the semifinal of December’s Hong Kong Open, but Kawy continues to be playing some of the best squash of her long career. When she’s in the zone she’s one of the most skilled shot-makers in the game, and that’s where she’ll need to be against the disciplined, lighting-fast David. The eight-time world champion has been in top form thus far in the ToC. Prediction: David, 3-0.

–Matt Lombardi