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U.S. ♥ Women’s Squash; Plus Day 3 Previews & Predictions

Last year ended on a sour note for women’s squash: the World Championship, slated for Malaysia, was canceled just weeks before it was scheduled to be played. (The initial reason given was security concerns, but apparently the root cause was financial.) While losing the premiere event of the season had to be a harsh blow, the women of squash can find some consolation in returning to friendly American soil.

Two years ago the U.S. Open broke new ground by becoming the first major tournament to pay equal prize money for men and women. This year the ToC is following suit, and the Windy City Open at the end of February is doing the same. That makes those the tournaments the richest on the women’s tour. While they were deprived of a World Championship, the women now have an American Triple Crown. My guess is that, even if there’s no World Championship again this year, 2016 will still be the most lucrative in the history of women’s professional squash.

Today the three top players in the game, Laura Massaro Raneem El Welily, and Nicol David, will all be on court in Grand Central. What’s striking about them beyond their talent is how different they are–in personalities, in body types, and in styles of play. The rivalry between the three is more intense and entertaining now that David is no longer head and shoulders above the rest. These are interesting times for women’s squash, and the younger generation that’s starting to mature holds the promise of more great rivalries in the future.

One thing that stands out for me about the women’s gain is how infrequently the “third player”–the referee–has a central role in the matches. There are fewer lets, strokes, and disputes than in the men’s game. It’s a noticeable and welcome difference.

Day 2 Previews and Predictions

Noon: Omar Mosaad (Egypt, age 27, rank 4) vs. Nicolas Müller (Switzerland, age 27 rank 26). The most imposing figure on the tour, Mosaad is a gentle giant—his mix of power and patience has made him one of the top players in the world. Müller is a hard hitter as well, but he can be more streaky. He’ll need to find his rhythm and dictate the tempo if he’s going to pull off the upset. Prediction: Mosaad, 3-1.

1pm: Nicol David (Malaysia, age 32, rank 3) vs. Victoria Lust (England, age 26, rank 21). Longtime world #1 David came back down to earth a bit in 2015, dropping from the top ranking for the first time in nine years, but she was in impressive form in winning the Hong Kong Open in December. Lust is a scrappy player on the rise. She improved her ranking by 10 places in 2015, but over the year she lost twice in straight games to David. Prediction: David, 3-0.

2pm: Laura Massaro (England, age 32, rank 1) vs. Olivia Blatchford (USA, age 22, rank 37). After 15 years on the tour, Massaro reached #1 in the world for the first time this month on the strength of wins in the U.S. Open and Qatar Classic. She has rock-solid fundamentals, hitting precise length and mixing in strategic attacks. She’s a tough challenge for the improving American Blatchford, but the native New Yorker will have the crowd behind her. Prediction: Massaro, 3-0.

3pm: Mathieu Castagnet (France, age 29, rank 10) vs. Max Lee (Hong Kong, age 27, rank 14). Castagnet is a master at extending rallies, wearing his opponent down, and forcing errors. Lee takes a similar approach, and though he doesn’t have quite the same level of consistency, when he’s hitting on all cylinders he’s also an effective attacker. Prediction: Castagnet, 3-1.

4pm: Amanda Sobhy (USA, age 22, rank 8) vs. Deon Saffery (Wales, age 29, rank 47). Sobhy, the highest ranked American player ever (female or male), loves to hit attacking shots. Expect her to put the Welsh veteran Saffery under relentless pressure. Prediction: Sobhy, 3-0.

6pm: Mohamed Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 24, rank 1) vs. Cameron Pilley (Australia, age 33, rank 13). This rematch of December’s Hong Kong Open final sees the veteran Pilley playing the best squash of his career and Elshorbagy looking like a very confident world #1. They’re two of the game’s most powerful players, so the match should have lots of fireworks. Prediction: Elshorbagy, 3-1.

7pm: Raneem El Welily (Egypt, age 27, rank 2) vs. Tesni Evans (Wales, age 23, rank 25). The defending ToC champion El Welily rose to the #1 ranking in the world in September but wobbled a bit in over the fall, failing to reach a final in her last four tournaments. She’s a daring shot-maker with the best racquet skills in the women’s game, which means she’s always entertaining to watch. Evans is a strong young talent who has stretched some of the top players to five games but is still looking for her breakthrough win. Prediction: El Welily, 3-1.

8pm: Borja Golan (Spain, age 33, rank 19) vs. Leo Au (Hong Kong, age 25, rank 30). Au won his first-round match by hitting impeccable length and squeezing errors from his opponent. Look for Golan to try keep him off balance with varied pace and a mix of drop shots and boasts. Prediction: Golan, 3-1.

–Matt Lombardi