ATCO SUPER SERIES FINALS - THE QUEEN’S CLUB 2009 PREVIEW

Were Motormouth to visit the ATCO Super Series Finals he would have seen the future is now. The championships have a court like a transportable tardis, eight highly evolved athletes, and a format pitting the best against the best each day.
 
Therein lies the key to who might win. This event has an ambience like no other and is the only event on the Professional Squash Association (PSA) Men’s World Tour where everyone has a world class test from first to last.
 
Daily recovery is an even more important quality for an aspiring winner of the coveted Super Series Final title. So is enduring fitness and current good form. There can often be little time to play your way into it.
 
It is sometimes possible to guess who will recover well. Apart from the obvious comment that they all do, because they often have to, but the format might arguably favour Greg Gaultier, Ramy Ashour, James Willstrop and Wael El Hindi because they are a little younger.
 
Amr Shabana showed at the end of 2007 how amazingly he could recover for five tournaments in a row, all of which he won. But can he do it now?
 
David Palmer has done it daily many times, notably at last year's British Open, but the evidence was slightly different at the World Open in October, where he won a match against Willstrop which was so brilliant that he described it as like another final, and then the following day played as though it was indeed the day after a final.
 
He and Thierry Lincou are the field's two most seasoned players, who can recover well if they make the adaptations they have gradually been introducing into their superb all-round games. In Lincou's case it means getting in the first good blow earlier and employing his front court abilities more killingly.
 
Current form, however is not as easy to assess as it may seem. How current it needs to be is a variable question. Players sometimes carry injuries for a length of time very successfully, and then struggle.
 
What is certain is that every genuine squash fan will hope that Shabana has overcome his recent fitness difficulties. The man who went thirty-three months as World No.1 is one of the sport's all-time greats but he retired in both of the first two Super Series events of 2009.
 
Shabana was trailing Nick Matthew 11-9, 11-7, 5-3 when he stopped in the Davenport North American Open at Richmond in the United States a fortnight ago, citing a knee he had apparently had for two months, though this was an improvement on what happened in January in the Tournament of Champions in New York where he was able to play for only fifteen minutes.
 
No-one has abilities quite like Shabana, who has a wonderful wrist for creating disguise, a lethal front court game, and a sometimes underestimated capacity for playing to a strangling line and length.
 
His compatriot Ramy Ashour has been trying to add similar qualities of patient accuracy to his spectacular creative gifts, which include the ability to ambush a rally with a sudden volley nick or an amazing change of pace.
 
It would be easy to go on about all the abilities on view – Willstrop's brilliant patterns, Lincou's fighting qualities, El Hindi's adherence to the centre of the court, Palmer's guts and strategic sense, Darwish's orthodox excellence, and Gaultier's knack of doing anything at different times and in different moods.
 
But it may not be these things which decide who is crowned champion. Character might, in which case you would have to give Palmer and Lincou, twice former winners of the Super Series finals, a decent chance.
 
Motivation might also be the crucial factor. In which case World No.1 Darwish, who is anxious to show that his ranking also means he can win big titles, will be very short odds. Lincou should also be very committed, to prove he's still in the mix. As should Willstrop, to cast off any notions that he might remain a nearly man, and also El Hindi, the last to qualify, to convince everyone he belongs in this company.
 
More motivated than any of them might be Nick Matthew, if he were called in as first reserve to replace an injured player. He has not long returned from an eight-month injury absence which made him wonder if he would ever be playing in this sort of company again. His spectacular results since his return to the World Tour would make him one of the form players.
 
Darwish has made a remarkable surge, winning the Saudi International in December and leap-frogging his better known Egyptian colleagues to the top of the rankings. This was a mind-altering win. He then reached the semi-finals in New York in January, when he was beaten by Gaultier and the semis in Virginia two weeks ago, when he was beaten by Ashour.
 
Like Darwish, Ashour had a colossal mental boost in 2008, winning the World Open in Manchester, though that was back in October. Since when he has lost to in the quarter-finals of the Qatar Classic to Lincou, retired injured in the quarter-finals of the Hong Kong Open, also against Lincou, and lost to Matthew in the New York semi-finals, but won the title in Virginia.
 
This has not been quite the sequence of a man who has been touted as the likely long-term successor to Shabana. There is no doubt Ashour has the ability to become that, but injury problems have continually interrupted his exciting progress.
 
That leaves Gaultier. He did not win a Super Series tournament last year, and so he is likely to be hungry. But he is the defending Super Series Finals champion, so he knows he can do it. And he can mix stubborn containment with dominant attacking and rapier-like front-court skills when the inclination is with him.
 
And it has been with him recently. After finishing 2008 with a place in the final of the Saudi International, Gaultier won the Tournament of Champions in New York, lost in to the semi-finals in Richmond to Matthew, and has looked in better shape than for some time.
 
You might as well buy a lottery ticket as make a prediction in this kind of field, but if you enjoy gambles, either of these two would be as a good choice. Both have won it before.
 
But because Gaultier is a player who embodies the spirit of a gamble - with him you never quite know what to expect – he might be an appropriate pick. It is bound to be a heart-stopping ride.

By Richard Eaton
 
John McEnroe once said when he came to The Queen’s Club that it was as if he had been taken back into the 19th century when he was wandering amidst the noise of gurgling cisterns in the old club house. But then he suddenly felt transported to the 21st when he saw the new facilities and the different sports.