What to Watch for at ToC 2018, Part 1: The Vengeful Beast, Regal Raneem, Ramy’s Return
The 2018 edition of the Tournament of Champions is packed with interesting subplots—so many that I’m going to divide my rundown of them into two parts. First, though, I want to take a moment to reminisce about the most memorable match from last year: the semifinal between Gregory Gaultier and Mohamed Elshorbagy.
It was a match for the ages, filled with more great play and melodrama than there’s space to recount here. (For a description, check out last year’s blog.) The point I want to make is that this wild, riveting battle—by consensus the most entertaining pro squash match of in all of 2017—couldn’t have happened anywhere but at the ToC.
Grand Central turns out to be the perfect place to stage a tournament, with an atmosphere that’s just the right mix of intimacy and intensity. The night of that memorable semi, Gaultier was absolutely electrified by the energy of the crowd—primarily to his benefit, but at times to his detriment. In any other venue, he would have either ridden his strong early play to a three-game win, or he would have folded meekly at the end of a five-game loss. That night was special because Grand Central turned it into something special.
Gaultier-Elshorbagy was the tournament’s most memorable match, but there were other great ones. (The quarterfinal between Nour El Sherbini and Nicol David stands out in my mind—a brilliant, nail-biting clash of generations.) The pleasure of anticipating the ToC is knowing that this year we’ll be seeing more spectacular play—but not knowing who it will end up coming from.
Here are some of the storylines and characters I’m particularly looking forward to (with more to come in part 2):
The Beast, Out for Revenge: The first half of the men’s professional season has been dominated be Mohamed Elshorbagy, aka the Beast of Alexandria. He comes into the ToC on a 21-match winning streak, capped by his first-ever World Championship title. If you remember Elshorbagy from his ToC wins in 2015 and 2016—well, now he’s even better. He’s more focused, and his game is more well-rounded, without losing an ounce of its relentless power.
Despite his exceptional play, Elshorbagy remains a hair behind Gaultier in the world rankings. A dream scenario would be for the two of them to meet in the ToC final. Elshorbagy has called last year’s defeat “a humiliation” and cited it as a motivating factor in his improved play. You know he’d love nothing more than to exact his revenge in Grand Central, and step off the court as the #1 player in the world.
Regal Raneem: If Elshorbagy is fire and fury, his counterpart on the women’s side, Raneem El Welily, is cool and class. Like Elshorbagy, she won her first World Championship last month, and she’s currently ranked #2 in the world, closing in on the top spot held by Nour El Sherbini. El Welily is one of my favorite players—her racquet skills are breathtaking, and her demeanor on court is a one-of-a-kind combination of modesty and bravado. If she can keep up her world-championship form, she’s going to be a blast to watch at the ToC.
Matthew’s Last Hurrah: English star Nick Matthew has announced that, at the age of 37, this will be his final year on the pro tour. The 2012 ToC winner and three-time world champion built his career on ferocious competitive drive. As he plays out his final tournaments, you know he wants to wrap things up with one last major championship. With the ToC crowd behind him, this could be his best chance.
Comeback Time for Sobhy: American star Amanda Sobhy suffered a squash-player’s nightmare last March when her Achilles heel ruptured (on match ball in the semis of the Cuidad de Floridablanca tournament in Colombia). She spent the rest of the year recuperating; the ToC will mark her return to pro competition. She’s bound to be rusty, but without the pressure of high expectations she’ll also be relaxed, which could make her a dangerous early-round opponent.
The Return of Ramy: On the men’s side, we’ll see the comeback of Ramy Ashour, who’s in the ToC draw for the first time since winning the tournament in 2013. Despite a career shadowed by injury, he’s cemented a reputation as one of the greatest talents in the history of the game. Highlights of his limited appearances this season have been a win at the China Open in September and a streak of mind-blowing play in a loss to Mohamed Elshorbagy at the World Championships. It feels strange to see Ashour in the draw and not think of him as the favorite, but this year he’ll be playing the role of a dark horse at the ToC. Pray for his good health, and then wait for the magic to unfold.
— Matt Lombardi