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Instant Karma; the Year of the Coach; Semis Previews & Predictions

If you like seeing good intentions rewarded, head to Grand Central tonight. This is the first year that the ToC has had a 32-player women’s draw and prize money equal to the men’s. The result has to be beyond the organizers’ wildest dreams: the quality of play and the level of sports drama provided by the women has been through the roof.

Any discussion of the women’s draw has to begin with Amanda Sobhy, the powerful, plucky Long Islander who has taken American squash to dizzying new heights. Her composure on court has been a match for her exceptionally high standard of play.

The excitement on the women’s side hardly ends there. Sobhy’s opponent tonight, 18-year-old Nouran Gohar, put in a star-making performance yesterday in her five-game win over world #1 Laura Massaro. Gohar is a special talent. She didn’t catch Massaro on an off day; the veteran has clearly worked hard to raise the level of her game, and from what I’ve seen she’s playing the best squash of her life. But Gohar was her equal, and had that little bit extra to push her through to a narrow victory.

For Sobhy to continue her dream run she’ll have to put in a spectacular performance against Gohar. That’s precisely what I think we’ll see tonight. Somehow I think the fact that these players are reaching new heights at the same time will help them relax and play their best. As one prepares to serve, she’ll look across the court and see a fellow fledgling. They’ll play like ruthless competitors, but I think each of them will feel a touch of shared joy simply from being there.

The other women’s semi has just as much potential for drama and high-quality play. Nour El Sherbini is cut from the same cloth as Sobhy and Gohar—she’s young, powerful, aggressive, and the most accomplished of the three. Her match with Nicol David is a classic battle of generations and styles. Can the diminutive, lightning-fast Malaysian, the most successful female player in the history of the game, hold back the march of time? I have to say that I’ll be rooting for her, just because she’s been such an exemplary champion, and because El Sherbini has so many years of greatness ahead of her.

As for the men, their matches could be rip-roarers as well. But 2016 is shaping up to be the women’s year at the ToC.

The Year of the Coach

One more observation: it’s the year of the woman, and it’s also the year of the coach. I can’t remember another time when coaches have been such a visible presence at the ToC. The most prominent is Amr Shabana, who won the tournament two years ago. Over the summer he retired, and he quickly shifted into the role of Egyptian national coach. For three out of four matches tonight he’ll be scurrying down to the sidelines between games, offering strategy and encouragement to Gohar, El Sherbini, and Mohamed Elshorbagy. (Elshorbagy will also be getting guidance from his mom—one of the most unlikely, but most successful, coaches on the tour.)

Mathieu Castagnet and Gregory Gaultier are part of a very cohesive “Team France,” lead by coach Renan Lavigne. Amanda Sobhy credits another Frenchman, former world #1 and ToC winner Thierry Lincou, with guiding her to new heights. Nick Matthew has a long-term relationship with David Pearson, and Nicol David has relied on the counsel of Liz Irving for more than a decade. I don’t know if Irving will be there, but the other coaches will all be courtside tonight.

Tonight’s Previews and Predictions

The evening will start with a pair of groundbreaking young stars and end with the longest, fiercest rivalry in game. Sobhy against Gohar is the most hotly anticipated ToC match I can remember, and there’s every reason to think it will be a scorcher.

5:00: Amanda Sobhy (USA, age 22, rank 8) vs. Nouran Gohar (Egypt, age 18, rank 10). These two phenomenal young talents have already rocked the squash world in the ToC, Sobhy by beating #2-ranked Raneem El Welily on Sunday, Gohar by taking out #1 Laura Massaro yesterday. They’re both powerful ball strikers who combine force and precision, with devastating results. Gohar may hold the slight edge in shot-making skills, while Sobhy may be marginally the stronger athlete. Sobhy is going to be buoyed by supporters eager to see her continue her unprecedented success for an American player. Whoever wins, this is likely to be the first chapter in a long rivalry. Prediction: Sobhy has been great so far, and she’ll have the crowd behind her, but Gohar looks to me like a transcendent talent. Gohar, 3-2.

6:00: Nicol David (Malaysia, age 32, rank 3) vs. Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 20, rank 5). At 20 years of age El Sherbini is already firmly established as one of the top women in the game; she reached the British Open finals at 16 and the World Open final at 17. Power hitting is her bread and butter, but she has a well-rounded game and is a savvy tactician. David, who saw her nine-year run as the #1 player in the world end this past September, will be eager for a ToC win to help her take her back to the top. She’s a decade older than any of the other semifinalists, but she’s still the fastest player on the court. She’ll hope to find success by running down the powerful shots of the younger generation. Prediction: I think the large amount of experience El Sherbini has packed into her short career will help her pull through. El Sherbini, 3-1.

8:00: Mohamed Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 25, rank 1) vs. Mathieu Castagnet (France, age 2, rank 10). This is likely to be the definition of a “cat and mouse” match. Elshorbagy is the game’s most effective attacking player—he’s fast and strong, and when his shots stay accurate he’s almost impossible to beat. Castagnet is a persistent retriever, and in the tournament so far he’s done an exceptional job of extending rallies, hitting good length, and forcing errors out of his opponents. He’ll need to be in perfect form to make that strategy work against the great talents of Elshorbagy. It’s happened once before, in December of 2014, but Elshorbagy has taken their two meetings this past fall in straight games. Prediction: Elshorbagy, 3-0.

9:00: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 33, rank 2) vs. Nick Matthew (England, age 35, rank 3). This is one of the great rivalries in squash: they’ve met twice in the World Open final and on dozens of other occasions, and every time it’s a tense battle. Gaultier, the reigning world champion, has the best court coverage in game and a subtle touch on drop shots that can break his opponent’s heart. At the age of 35 Matthew is still the fittest player on the tour; he’s happy to play long points, testing his opponent for weaknesses and then going in for the kill. He showed his tremendous fighting spirit in last night’s five-game, come-from-behind win against Marwan Elshorbagy, a man 13 years his junior. Matthew won his two matches against Gaultier in 2015, but the last time they played each other was back in March. Prediction: With the French team behind him, I think Gaultier will keep his cool. If he can do that, he’ll take the match. Gaultier, 3-1.

–Matt Lombardi