ATCO SUPER SERIES FINALS – THE QUEEN’S CLUB 2009: 14TH TO 17TH MARCH

The new World No.1 will be twenty-eight this year, and his burst to the top in the last three months of last year stunned many people. Because he had spent forty-five of sixty-five months in the top ten without getting higher than five, many thought he had peaked. A major contribution to the new surge came from the security, stability and self-confidence generated by marriage to Egyptian squash professional Engy Kheirullah.
 
His athletic movement has become supplemented by a more consistent mixture of accuracy and short-swing deception than ever before. It brought during 2008 six World Tour finals and three titles, with a grandstand finish in which he was runner-up in the World Open, won his first Super Series title, the Qatar Classic, and earned $37,000 at the Saudi International, the world's richest event.
 
Don't expect him to spend it. He and his wife Engy had already set up a big house in Maadi for three generations of the family, with an ultra-modern living room, a classic English and French reception, and a big plasma TV.
 
 
AMR SHABANA is the greatest player of the modern era. A measure of this is the extent of the surprise when, after fully thirty-three consecutive months as World No.1, he lost the top spot at the start of this year.
 
Although sometimes characterised as the glittering shot-maker who dazzles at the front of the court, Shabana often drowns opponents deep and tight in the corners with beautifully timed drives, or jerks them around till they are stranded in no-man's land.
 
Easy though it is to see his determination which helped him to three World Open titles, it is sometimes overlooked that this martial quality is combined with a pacific graciousness which Shabana often had to summon during a difficult 2008. Often he was below par physically, perhaps a legacy of his exhausting finish to 2007, in which he won five successive tournaments. Despite this, Shabana will join a pantheon which includes Amr Bey, Mahmoud Karim, and Abou Taleb, the Egyptian legends created over a period of seventy years.
 
Shabana has given up so much to do it, there are moments when he dreams of hisbeach house in Alexandria or " anywhere with sun and white sand beaches - it’s a bonus if there’s no squash court!"
 
 
RAMY ASHOUR, sometimes labelled the prince of squash, last year began to acquire some of the regal status which seemed his for the taking when he burst on the squash scene in 2004 by becoming the youngest player, at sixteen, to win the world junior title.
 
His two biggest senior breakthroughs came in this country, suggesting that, fitness permitting, he may be unofficial favourite at The Queens Club. These were his triumph in the Super Series Finals in Manchester two years ago and at the World Open in the same city five months ago, when he overcame both Shabana and Darwish.
 
No one plays like he does, his explosive movement combining an ability to ambush opponents with something sudden and destructive in the middle of a level-pegging rally. He is also, he says, trying to develop a more disciplined mode. A main concern, as with others on an arduous circuit, is whether he can overcome fitness problems which last May had him question his future. If he can, expect to see the sport's most dazzling smile more often.
The man from Cairo is also pleasantly cosmopolitan: both parents work as flight crew on Egyptian airlines, and he persisted with studies at university after reaching the top. The toughest thing in life is fasting during Ramadan, he claims. But he won't fast during a tournament any more as it would leave no energy to play.
 
 
JAMES WILLSTROP is the only Englishman competing in this years Super Series Finals and his form in 2008 suggest that he may be coming to his peak.
 
He employs a great reach and a wonderful wrist, is as creatively entertaining as any of the great players and his talent is supplemented by charisma and a generous spirit. The young Englishman came within a couple of wins of World No.1 after winning a Super Series title at the 2005 Qatar Classic, and last year was arguably playing even better, winning another Super Series title at the Davenport Pro Championships at Richmond, Virginia. This happened with the help of improvement in both his stamina and his movement.
 
Willstrop has twice reached the final of the British Open and was unlucky not to have taken the famous title last May in Liverpool where he held two match points, and was only denied by some remarkable tenacity from David Palmer. All the evidence, however, suggests that a major title is within his reach.
 
Willstrop is also well-known as a singer and guitarist who performed with a band which played at the British National Championships, called Lost for Words. Naturally, he rarely is.
 
 
GREG GAULTIER is a huge part of the Gallic squash miracle. Despite coming from a country with few players and little squash tradition, he became the first Frenchman to win the British Open (2007) and only the second, after Thierry Lincou, to win the Super Series Finals title (2008).
 
Gaultier is a player with a rare mixture of versatile skill and physical ability, with the capacity to carve opponents up or wear them down. But alongside his two biggest triumphs, Gaultier has two heroic near misses. He reached World No.1, but has yet to make the last step; and he lost the most exciting World Open final of them all, in 2006, when he held five match points and was frustrated by a mixture of David Palmer's bravery and eccentric refereeing. Since then, “I have changed a lot mentally,” Gaultier says. “I focus differently, and on different things. I am more relaxed.” Expect more great things from him – quite possibly this week.
 
He has an interesting favourite book: Tintin and Milou (or Snowy). One could describe it is as the story of a young world traveller with the unexpected knack of learning and teaching us things.
 
 
DAVID PALMER is the most successful player in the two most prestigious tournaments in more than a decade. He is twice World Open champion and four times British Open champion, something which not even the two recent greats, Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power, can equal. It makes Palmer the best Australian since the great Geoff Hunt left the tour a quarter of a century ago.
 
Palmer is notable for the great courage he adds to a solid all-round game and a smothering volley. Less than a year ago he won the most dramatic British Open final of them all, saving two match points. He also saved two match points in the 2002 World Open final in Antwerp, and fully five match points in the 2006 World Open final at the Giza Pyramids. Each time he toughed it out when many would have folded. His nickname is the Marine. It is seven years since Palmer has won the Super Series Finals, but his strength of character means that few would rule out, even now, a repeat.
 
The exceptionally long distances and times away from home have been mitigated by a combination of the birth of his daughter Kayla Jane and the use of his webcam, and the knowledge that Aussies don't forget him – he was awarded the Order of Australian Merit.
 
 
THIERRY LINCOU became the first French player ever to crowned World Champion or World No.1 – despite coming from Reunion Island, a small island in the Indian Ocean which had no squash courts when he became interested in the sport. This happened while he was on holiday in Biarritz, and it persuaded his father that they should construct their own court. It brought such rapid improvement that Lincou had to move as a teenager to Paris and Marseille to develop his talent.
 
His capacity for great comebacks, and his qualities as one of the sport’s gentlemen, has made him one of squash's most distinctive legends. Even as the oldest man in the tournament he is adding to his game, honing more of a cutting edge to his attacks. He won the Super Series Finals five years ago, and has twice been a runner-up, and even though he is almost thirty-three years of age, he is still a serious challenger.
 
Lincou had to leave a paradise to play professional squash and hopes to return there with his wife and two children when he finishes. In the meantime he will continue to be what his mother calls “le messager de la paix” - the great ambassador.
 
 
WAEL EL HINDI was the last aboard for the Super Series Finals and may therefore feel that he has less pressure upon him than the others. And although he has so far only won one Super Series title, the Petrosport Open last summer in Cairo - only a couple of miles from his birthplace in Giza - there is no question of the intensity of his ambition. No-one who has watched his determination to keep and hold a central T position on the court, and his intimidating movement, would ever doubt it.
 
El Hindi has refused to allow himself to be overshadowed by the formidable presence of his compatriots Amr Shabana, Ramy Ashour, and Karim Darwish: although he has yet to beat Ashour, he has a winning head-to-head against Darwish and has pushed steadily upwards until he reached the World's top ten for the first time sixteen months ago. He also finished sixth on his debut in the Super Series Finals last year, and is even stronger, fitter, and faster now.
 
El Hindi has often been eye-catching. He is the only leading player to wear Nadal-style pirate pants and often trains with squash legend Jonah Barrington at Millfield School in Somerset. It's been a good idea - until son Joey Barrington tried to give him a Mohican tail haircut!
 
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KARIM DARWISH is more than just the most surprising player of 2008. He is proof that, despite the faster, more explosive nature of the modern game, in which top players have tended to be younger, they can mature late.