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Wolves at the Door; Plus Sunday Previews & Predictions

Every year you hear talk about the ToC being the players’ favorite tournament, but that buzz seems louder than usual this time around. Without fail, every match winner is mentioning how fantastic the crowds are and how great it is to play in Grand Central. Ironically,  the hustle and bustle of station–the immediate presence of the workaday world–helps turn the ToC into a kind of squash fantasy land. It’s a place where matches are played to capacity crowds from Day 1, and where players take on the roles of heroes (and, on rare occasions, villains) like world-class athletes in more prominent sports. There’s an excitement in the air that gets amplified by the general energy of the surroundings.

I think the reason the players are especially appreciative this year is because, outside the friendly confines of Grand Central, there are some wolves at squash’s door. As I mentioned in my last post, December’s women’s World Championship was canceled. Venues haven’t been announced for either the men’s or women’s 2016 world championships, which isn’t an encouraging sign. Also in December the men’s World Team Championship was canceled, or at least postponed, because of security concerns in Cairo–which had been had been a last-minute location choice, after the event was moved from Kuwait due to its Olympic committee being suspended by the IOC for “undue government interference.”

Apparently squash still cares what the IOC thinks, despite the fact that after being shortlisted (for what, the fourth time?) for inclusion in the Games, in September it was once again turned down. This time the rejection led to infighting, in the form of accusations that the bid had been mishandled by the World Squash Federation.

All of that is in the back of my mind as I hear the players sing the praises of the ToC. The past few rough months off the court for squash make the pleasures of the tournament all the sweeter. Our game has been buffeted by ill fortune in the past and bounced back, and there are reasons for optimism, especially in America, which over the past couple of years has played an increasingly prominent role in the pro tour. We just have to hope that next year President Trump has second thoughts about his ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S….

Day 3 Previews and Predictions

Back on court, here’s a look at an impressive slate of Sunday matches:

Noon: Gregory Gaultier (France, age 33, rank 2) vs. Fares Dessouki (Egypt, age 21, rank 21). As always in Gaultier matches psychology will play a role: the supremely skilled world champion will do everything he can to establish control early and snuff out any flicker of confidence in Dessouki’s mind. Dessouki seems mentally mature for a 21-year-old, and his game may be the most fundamentally solid of all the young Egyptians, but in two matches against Gaultier in 2015 he didn’t manage to win a game. Prediction: The champ will maintain the upper hand. Gaultier, 3-0.

1:00: Nouran Gohar (Egypt, age 18, rank 10) vs. Heba El Torky (Egypt, age 24, rank 22). Gohar, the reigning world junior champion, is a force to be reckoned with—her combination of skill and athleticism casts her as a female version of what Mohamed Elshorbagy was as a teenager (which is to say, a future world #1). El Torky doesn’t have the same kind of raw talent, but she’s a ball of fire on court. No matter the outcome, this is going to be an intense match. Prediction: Gohar, 3-2.

1:45: Simon Rösner (Germany, age 28, rank 7) vs. James Willstrop (England, age 32, rank 12). These are two of the biggest bodies in the game, but they both play with a speed and dexterity that belies their size. If Willstrop can maintain the form he showed in the World Championship and the Hong Kong Open at the end of the year, he should be able to pull out the win. Rösner’s a great talent, but through much of 2015 he seemed to be spinning his wheels, winning the matches he was supposed to but failing to make headway against the players ranked above him. Prediction: Willstrop, 3-1.

3:30: Marwan Elshorbagy (Egypt, age 22, rank 11) vs. Ryan Cuskelly (Australia, age 28, rank 17). Cuskelly is the veteran and Elshorbagy the young star, but it’s Cuskelly who has been improving in leaps and bounds, rising 30 positions in the rankings in 2015. They play similar games: they’re both heady, multidimensional players who like to vary the pace and pounce on volleys. Prediction: I think Cuskelly’s current upward momentum will make the difference. Cuskelly, 3-2.

4:30: Laura Massaro (England, age 32, rank 1) vs. Coline Aumard (France, age26, rank 36). Aumard’s reward for her impressive first-round upset over Sarah-Jane Perry is a match against the #1 player in the world. They have similar styles, with long, graceful strokes and fluid movement around the court, but Massaro’s precise execution distinguishes her as one of the game’s greats. Prediction: Massaro, 3-0.

5:15: Nick Matthew (England, age 35, rank 3) vs. Karim Abdel Gawad (Egypt, age24, rank 9). There are a number of promising matches on the schedule today, but this is the one I’m most looking forward to.The quality of play is likely to be through the roof, and if Gawad can pull off the win, it could mark a generational changing of the guard. Prediction: Matthew will still be feeling the sting of his loss to Tarek Momen in the World Championship. For the moment, at least, that will make him even tougher for other young Egyptians to beat. Matthew, 3-2.

7:00: Raneem El Welily (Egypt, age 27, rank 2) vs. Amanda Sobhy (USA, age 22, rank 8). Sobhy loves to play hard-hitting, attacking squash, but tonight she may try to rein in her aggressive style against El Welily, who’s the best in the world at converting opponent’s loose attacks into winners of her own. El Welily’s confidence seemed to waiver after she took over the #1 rank in September, so there could be a big psychological component in this match too. Prediction: El Welily, 3-2.

8:00: Alison Waters (England, rank 9, age 31) vs. Delia Arnold (Malaysia, rank 16, age 29). Waters, a ToC finalist last year, will use her textbook form and strategic attacking to keep Arnold off balance. The steady Malaysian beat Waters, as well as Raneem El Welily, in last year’s British Open, so she’s capable of the upset. Prediction: Waters will avenge the British Open loss. Waters, 3-1.

–Matt Lombardi