What to Watch for at ToC 2018, Part 2: Brothers & Sisters, Husbands & Wives, Plus a Couple of Kids
In the previous Courtside Blog I described some story lines to keep an eye on in this year’s ToC. Here are a few more.
Not surprisingly, they’ve got an Egyptian bent. Egyptians have won the men’s ToC title for five years running, and Egyptian women have won two out of the last three years. Four out of the top five ranked men in the world and three out of the top five women are from Egypt. At December’s World Championships, in both the women’s and men’s draws three of four semifinalists, and all of the finalists, were Egyptians.
Calling this a national domination of the sport doesn’t do justice to how small a pool of talent these great players come from. Virtually every member of the Egyptian squash contingency hails from either Cairo or Alexandria, and, like in the U.S., squash in Egypt tends to be a sport of the upper classes. Their club championships are world-class events.
I can’t explain this almost freakish domination, but what’s going to interest me as the ToC unfolds is watching how certain relationships that result from it play out. For example…
The Elshorbagys’ Sibling Rivalry
The latest men’s World Championship final, for the first time ever, pitted two brothers against one another, Mohamed and Marwan Elshorbagy, with the older Mohamed taking the title in five games.
The parallel that immediately jumps to mind is the Williams sisters of tennis, and if you reverse the birth order, it makes a good analogy. Mohamed is like Serena: he’s stronger, more aggressive, and more accomplished—he was ranked #1 throughout 2015 and 2016, and after a slight dip in performance last year, he comes into the ToC as the hottest player on the tour. Marwan is Venus: he’s more of a tactician and less of a dominant physical presence than his brother, and he has a more reserved, worldly demeanor.
Their World Championship match was, not surprisingly, tense. Both players can be savvy employers of gamesmanship, but when your opponent is your brother, the usual mind games go out the window—to be replaced by a whole different kind of psychological warfare. Both made unaccustomed errors and strayed from their usual tactics. There were points in the match when they seemed to be reveling in the moment, and others when they looked like they just wanted to get it over with. Ultimately Marwan succumbed to fatigue in the fifth. He was physically spent from a hard semi the evening before, but he surely was worn out mentally as well.
The ToC is the first major men’s tournament since that match. The brothers are on opposite sides of the draw, so if they meet again it will be in the final. If that happens, we’ll be seeing the fascinating next act of a growing sibling rivalry.
The Sisterhood of Egyptian Squash
The Egyptian women at the top of the game aren’t related by blood, but they might as well be. It’s fascinating to see how the dynamic between them differs from the men. While the men are cordial and supportive of one another, they’re focused first and foremost on individual accomplishment. With the women, the bond runs deeper. They hang out together off court, they coach each other between games in matches, and while they all aim to win, they seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s successes.
When two of the top Egyptian women meet in a match, as we’re likely to see at some point in the ToC, they seem to relax, almost like friends playing at a club. The result is often something that feels like the game in its purest form: two players performing at their peak, liberated from any psychological antics.
Egyptians achieved another family first in the 2017-18 pro squash season: at the U.S. Open in October, Ali Farag and Nour El Tayeb became the first husband and wife to win the men’s and women’s titles at a major tournament. There’s no two ways about it: they made an adorable couple as they nervously watched each other’s matches, and then lifted their trophies together while wearing ear-to-ear grins.
Though the competition is tough, they’re both prime contenders to win the ToC title. Farag is the last player to beat Mohamed Elshorbagy (in the U.S. Open final), and though he’s lost to Mohamed twice since then, he seems as likely as anyone to stop Elshorbagy’s current hot streak. (The draw would have them meeting in the semis.) El Tayeb is a firmly established member of the Egyptian sisterhood. Last week at the PSA Masters in Saudi Arabia, she beat defending ToC champ Camille Serme and Greatest-of-All-Time frontrunner Nicol David before bowing to Raneem El Welily in the semis.
El Welily is half of another Egyptian couple that has a shot at ToC glory: she’s ranked #2, and the newly crowned world champion, while her husband, Tarek Momen, is ranked #7. She’s one of the favorites to win; he’s a longshot, and he isn’t helped by a tough draw, but he’s a unique talent—a lightning-quick counterattacker—who’s fully capable of pulling off an upset.
And now, a couple of non-Egyptians to watch for:
The Peruvian Boy Wonder
The youngest player in the men’s draw, 21-year-old Lima native Diego Elias, is one of the player’s I’m most looking forward to seeing this year. Over the fall his game took a big leap forward: he notched wins against Momen, Nick Matthew, James Willstrop, and Marwan Elshorbagy, and saw his ranking rise to #10. He’s been coached by Jonathon Power, and you can see some of Power’s technique and shot-making skill in his game. What impresses me most about him, though, is his movement around court. His long, seemingly effortless strides and prescient ability to read opponents’ shots are reminiscent of (and I bite my tongue before saying this) the master, Jansher Khan. Elias is coming back from a torn hamstring that kept him out of the World Championship, which could mean either that he’s rusty or well rested. Either way, it’s unlikely he’ll win it all this year, but if he stays healthy he’s going to be a force for years to come.
The American Girl Wonder
The wildcard in the women’s draw, 15-year-old Darien, Conn., native Marina Stefanoni, is a rising star of U.S. junior squash. I’ve only seen video of a couple of her matches, but she comes across as a levelheaded teenager who could end up making a mark on the pro tour, if that’s where her ambition leads her. It could be nerve racking to watch her step on court in the first round against the powerful, hardheaded Nouran Gohar, but it looks like she has the composure to make the best of the experience.