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Who Will Gain Tonight’s Home-Court Advantage? Plus Semifinals Previews and Predictions

The question running through my mind as I think about tonight’s semifinal matches is, who’s going to be the crowd favorite?

Because of Grand Central turns out to be such a great squash venue, the dynamic between the fans and the players takes on a significance you don’t get at other PSA tournaments. You could feel it in the upsets earlier this week, when the crowd sensed something unusual was in the offing and got behind the underdogs—particularly when defending champ Karim Abdel Gawad fell to Nicky Mueller, who between points actively courted audience support.

You could also feel it in last night’s edgy match between Ali Farag and Ramy Ashour. The crowd clearly wanted magic from Ashour. When Farag started, by the thinnest of margins, to control play, the fans grew frustrated, and that frustration spilled over onto the court. I can’t remember ever seeing Ramy look so ill at ease.

So, tonight, who will have the home-court advantage? For the women, it’s a case where the two players with the best crowd relations, Serme and El Tayeb, are playing each other. I think allegiances will sway from point to point. In the first match, El Sherbini is an awesome talent, but she’s not very demonstrative on court—she doesn’t create a character for fans to latch onto. Massaro’s fierce competitive drive is easy to admire but harder to adore.

The biggest crowd effect is likely to be felt in the Gaultier-Rosner match. Gaultier loves to interact with the audience, and there’s no bigger showman in the game. But Rosner is an affable character, and he’ll have the built-in charm of the underdog. If he can keep things close, the crowd is likely to get behind him—and that in turn could unnerve Gaultier. Momen and Farag are both gentlemen on the court, but they’re also cool customers. Expect some fist pumps, but no overt attempts to rally the crowd behind them. Fans will be cheering the great play, not the personalities.

5:00: Nour El Sherbini (Egypt, age 22, rank 1) vs. Laura Massaro (England, age 34, rank 4). At only 22 years of age, El Sherbini has had a transformative effect on women’s squash. She’s the top performer from a group of young Egyptians who are bringing a new level of athleticism to the game and daring their elders to follow suit. El Sherbini is a powerful striker, but she’s also a subtle shot-maker and a smart tactician. She doesn’t go for as many high-risk attacks as some of her compatriots, but she has a knack for hitting a winner at just the moment when it’s most likely to break her opponent’s spirit. Massaro’s trademark throughout her distinguished career has been steely tenacity; breaking her spirit may prove to be impossible. She dug deep to win five-game matches in her first two rounds this week, and then raised her game for a 3-0 win against Nouran Gohar in the quarters. She’s a practitioner of classic English squash, extending rallies and squeezing errors from opponents through accurate hitting, but her style has evolved to include more proactive attacks. Prediction: El Sherbini, 3-2.

6:00: Camille Serme (France, age 28, rank 3) vs. Nour El Tayeb (Egypt, age 24, rank 7). Serme won last year’s ToC title by bringing her own form of aggression to the game, taking the ball early to put her opponent off balance and out of position before going in for the kill. In yesterday’s quarterfinal against Nicol David she also showed off her mental toughness, playing her best squash on the biggest points. El Tayeb, like her husband Ali Farag, is a graceful mover, and she’s fearless with her attacking shots. She’s been sharp all week, knocking off local hero Amanda Sobhy in the second round and world champion Raneem El Welily in the quarters. Serme and El Tayeb played just two weeks ago at the PSA Masters in Saudi Arabia, with El Tayeb coming back from two down to notch a five-game win. Prediction: Serme, 3-2.

8:00: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 35, rank 1) vs. Simon Rosner (Germany, age 30, rank 8). Gaultier has such a flamboyant, mercurial on-court personality that at times, amid all the theatrics, it’s almost possible to forget he’s the #1 player in the world. Viewers didn’t have that problem during his quarterfinal win over Nick Matthew: his mood was even-tempered, and his game was on fire, with accurate hitting and lightning-fast retrievals holding steady through point after gut-wrenching point. If he can maintain such form tonight, he’ll be very hard for Rosner to beat. The big German uses a distinctive chopping swing to hit with tremendous power, but he also has impressively agile touch at the front of the court. This is his second-ever semifinal appearance in a World Series event. If he wins, he’ll reach his first final. Prediction: Gaultier, 3-0.

9:00: Ali Farag (Egypt, age 25, rank 3) vs. Tarek Momen (Egypt, age 29, rank 7). Momen, like Simon Rosner, has spent his career battling toe to toe with the game’s greatest players without ever managing to win one of the major titles. His strengths are amazing speed and creative, daring shot-making. His shortcoming in the past has been consistency, but so far this week he’s maintained his focus, and as a result his level of play has been through the roof. Tonight’s match should deliver mind-blowing retrieving. While Momen is blindingly fast, Farag moves around the court with long, languid strides that disguise his own blazing speed. Last night he showed his composure and tactical savvy in beating his (and every other young Egyptian’s) boyhood idol, Ramy Ashour. Prediction: Farag, 3-2.

–Matt Lombardi