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

The neat symbolism of a Super Series starting in New York and ending in the Middle East has been noted before. When it includes some of the most comradely and cosmopolitan men ever to wield a racket, it helps erode the malice and misunderstanding which threatens the planet.
 
Its eleven-month, nine-tournament trail across the globe actually starts only a couple of miles from Ground Zero. There, under the arches of Grand Central terminal in January, Ramy Ashour won the eye-catching opening event, the Tournament of Champions.
 
He did so by beating James Willstrop 11-7 13-11 11-9 in a final of splendid shot-making and sportsmanlike movement in which officials were almost redundant.
 
The phenomenally gifted 21-year-old showed himself a very special product of personal commitment, national investment, and Islamic ethics, lending a fraternal culture to the Egyptian squad.
 
But Ashour's efforts took a physical toll. He was two games down to Wael El Hindi in the quarter-finals, and taken to 15-13 in the fourth game before overcoming David Palmer in the semis.
 
There was no Amr Shabana. The long-lasting World No.1was still affected by his exhaustingly successful finish to '07; his absence was significant in a year in which that momentum was never quite regained.
 
By contrast Willstrop began 2008 in the form of his life, beating Greg Gaultier, then the British Open champion, in the semis; he did better still when the Davenport Pro Championships took the Super Series 250 miles south to Richmond, Virginia.
 
It was here in 1865 that the American civil war had its symbolic end with the arrival of Abraham Lincoln. Now it was visited by the world's best and many surprises.
 
First Ashour was beaten by his compatriot Karim Darwish in a five-game quarter-final; then the recently married and steadily improving Egyptian was halted by Willstrop. The Englishman upset Gaultier again in the final.
 
Not till April did Shabana return to the Series, at the Kuwait Open, where he beat Ashour in the final, although his semi with Gaultier ended prematurely after a collision damaged the Frenchman's ankle.
 
“I feel terrible: Greg is one of my best mates,” said Shabana, who was nevertheless seemed to be feeling good the next day while despatching the younger Egyptian 11-9 11-7 13-11.
 
“My game plan was to play perfect squash,” said Shabana. Few would have risked thinking that.
 
“He's like a big brother to me,” Ashour said, despite losing. Few would have been that magnanimous either.
 
Earlier Gaultier was too accurate for Darwish, while Willstrop failed to reach a final for the first time in relinquishing a two-game lead to Thierry Lincou.
 
Another 31-year-old former World Champion, Palmer, again failed to reach the quarters, making it all the more dramatic when, a fortnight later in May, he won arguably the most exciting Dunlop British Open final in its 70-year history.
 
The Aussie came to the Liverpool unsure of what he could still do, and caused amazement by saving two match points in a 112-minute epic with Willstrop which he won 11-9, 11-9, 8-11, 6-11, 13-11.
 
Palmer also beat Shabana, though a bigger surprise was Ashour's four-game loss to the Malaysian, Azlan Iskandar, after which he proclaimed tearfully that injuries were threatening his career.
 
Palmer was however fortunate to survive his semi with Darwish, who suffered a freak knee injury while appearing to be on top. It was the second hint that Darwish was such a dangerous improver; the first was his ending Gaultier's title defence.
 
Two months later another notable Egyptian success brought El Hindi his first Super Series title, amid Cairo's madcap energy at the Petrosport Open. He did though have two slices of luck.
 
First he avoided Ashour, who withdrew with an injured knee. Then El Hindi escaped a full semi-final with Shabana, whose damaged toe brought early retirement. But there was no doubting El Hindi's appetite and speed, especially in a final he won 11-8 11-5 5-11 11-9 against the returning Darwish.
 
It was nevertheless a useful return to action for Darwish, taking him to fourth in the Super Series standing, almost sure of qualifying. So was Shabana, in third place, and Ashour and Willstrop, first equal. But the next four, El Hindi, Gaultier, Palmer and Lincou, still had work to do.
 
Come October, and the World Open in Manchester, Palmer had made the cut too, repeating his win over Willstrop, again in five games, but this time in the quarters.
 
“It felt like a final,” Palmer said, and it may have sapped him, for the following day Darwish atoned for his British Open ill-luck.
 
The other semi, between Shabana and Ashour, was the match of this or any tournament. The rallies were sensational, especially in the fourth game when Shabana was within two points of winning. Ashour, in a slightly more disciplined mode, won 11-6 7-11 7-11 11-9 11-7, fighting off Shabana's fifth game revival from 0-7 to 6-9.
 
The final, in which Ashour beat Darwish 5-11, 11-8, 11-4, 11-5, was not as good, but still fine, creative, Egyptian squash. “I was thinking about anything but the squash,” Ashour said, only half-humorously. “Think too much in a match like that and you get desperate.”
 
More significant for the Super Series finals was Lincou's second round loss to Mohammed El Shorbagy, the youngest Egyptian, and Gaultier's third round loss to England's Adrian Grant, for neither loser was yet sure of qualifying. A fortnight later though Lincou enhanced his chances by beating Ashour in five games, his best win of 2008.
 
It happened at the Qatar Classic, close to Doha's idyllic bay, where Darwish won his first Super Series title, beating Gaultier 5-11 11-5 8-11 12-10 11-5 and overwhelming Shabana in the final. He had never previously beaten his famous compatriot in a completed match.
 
But Shabana loves Tsim Tsa Tsui, with its exciting waterfront and soaring buildings, and once again at the Hong Kong Open, it showed. Here in 2005 he won his second World Open title and here from November 19-25 he avenged himself on Darwish before keeping the title.
 
The long season was taking a toll, for neither Palmer nor Ashour could complete their quarter-finals, the World Champion's retirement enabling Lincou to secure his Super Series finals place by reaching his second successive semi-final.
 
But even though Shabana won the final 11-7 13-15 8-11 11-2 11-3 against Gaultier, his top spot was now at risk, and three weeks later on the last lap at the Saudi International, the world's richest tournament, he was deposed. 
 
It happened with a four-game quarter-final loss to Darwish, the adrenalin-charged new leader then charging joyfully on to beat Gaultier in the final. A Super Series title once again eluded the Frenchman.
 
Meanwhile a struggling Ashour lost to the resurgent Nick Matthew, and Palmer beat El Hindi - and Willstrop yet again. Despite this El Hindi made the cut, for Barker's second round and quarter-final in his last two events were not quite enough to elevate him, and Matthew became first reserve instead.
 
It means the Egyptians fill half the places at the Super Series finals. Once Pakistan dominated the World Tour, and for a while Australia too, though never like this. Two Frenchman, an Englishman and an Australian will find them hard to stop.
 
ATCO Group:
Karim Darwish (1)
Greg Gaultier (4)
David Palmer (6)
Wael El Hindi (8)
Prince Group:
Amr Shabana (2)
Ramy Ashour (3)
James Willstrop (5)
Thierry Lincou (7)

ATCO Super Series Finals - The Queen's Club 2009 Championship Schedule:
Saturday 14th March
1st session 2pm - 4pm

2.00pm Gregory Gaultier vs. David Palmer
3.00pm Amr Shabana vs. Thierry Lincou
2nd session 5pm - 7pm
5.00pm Karim Darwish vs. Wael El Hindi
6.00pm Ramy Ashour vs. James Willstrop

Sunday 15th March
1st session 2pm - 4pm

2.00pm Gregory Gaultier vs. Wael El Hindi
3.00pm Amr Shabana vs. James Willstrop
2nd session 5pm - 7pm
5.00pm Karim Darwish vs. David Palmer
6.00pm Ramy Ashour vs. Thierry Lincou

Monday 16th March
1st session 6pm - 8pm

6.00pm David Palmer vs. Wael El Hindi
7.00pm Ramy Ashour vs. Amr Shabana
2nd session 8pm - 10pm
8.00pm Karim Darwish vs. Gregory Gaultier
9.00pm James Willstrop vs. Thierry Lincou

Tuesday 17th March
6.00pm 3/4 Play-off
7.00pm ATCO Super Series Finals - The Queen's Club 2009 Final

Tickets for the ATCO Super Series Finals - The Queen's Club can be booked online at www.isportgroup.com/ticketing, by telephone on 0844 870 0000, or for further information email: info@iSPORTgroup.com.
Issued by iSPORTgroup.com

The 2009 ATCO Super Series Finals will bring together the top eight qualifiers from the annual Professional Squash Association (PSA) Super Series World Tour and will be staged at the world famous Queen's Club in London, England from the 14th to 17th March.