KUWAIT MEN’S WORLD OPEN 2009

If that idea was a shock to the English, who have long enjoyed the good fortune of having more players, coaches, and courts than anyone else, it also increased a feeling of envy at the talent possessed by the Egyptians. And since then this emotion will have grown. On the eve of the 2009 Men’s World Open, there were three Egyptians in the world’s top four and four in the top nine, and a fifth, Mohammed El Shorbagy, who has only just left school, who is already making his way ominously up the world's top twenty.
 
When Ashour comes to defend his title, with his startling creativity, winning smile, and unusual, thumb-dominated grip, we should gain new perspectives about Wagih's assertion.
 
That's because the venue for the Kuwait Men’s World Open 2009 is less than a thousand miles from Cairo, quite close by Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Tour standards, and players from squash's most successful nation may find it more comfortable to compete in Kuwait than in Europe, or anywhere else.
 
Certainly the blue-skied paradise of Green Island is as great a contrast to the cool clouds and metal-and-stone of Manchester's SportCity as you could get. And Middle East spectators may well want one of the Egyptians to win.
 
What they may not know is the range of issues confronting these players. Karim Darwish, Ramy Ashour and Amr Shabana are at different stages of their careers, with quite different plans, hopes, and mindsets.
 
Darwish has been World No.1 all year but superbly improved though he is, with better developed physical attributes and greater self-confidence, he has yet to win the World Open. Till he does his status as the leading player will be questioned, a situation which may create tension for him, and tension has sometimes been his greatest opponent.
 
Ashour in form looks so brilliant, is so stunningly inventive, and has so luminous a presence, that one wonders why he is not dominating his sport. But the modern player's great dread, persistent ailments and the possibility of long-term injury, has troubled the young man earlier and more persistently than most.
 
Hence Ashour's preparation may have involved special attention to his schedule, to energy conservation, to movement-specific training, and perhaps to physiotherapy as well, so that the difficulties with feet and legs over the past couple of years don't hinder his movement.
 
Shabana, another player of exceptional brilliance and with deceptively hidden mental strengths too, has not yet shown signs of pushing back up to the pinnacle which he occupied for fully thirty-three months until Darwish toppled him at the turn of the New Year.
 
A recurring knee injury brought Shabana's retirement in Virginia in February after which he slipped outside of the world’s top three and one is bound to ask whether, at thirty years of age, Shabana is preparing to hand over to the younger Egyptians, two of whom describe him as like an elder brother. Is the great man preparing to wind down, or does he still have the ambition to do it all again?  Kuwait may provide answers. It may also offer glimpses into his heart.
 
For some though, none of this trio is favourite for the title. Some think that Greg Gaultier, the Frenchman who kissed the Duchess at the Queens Club in London where the Super Series Finals were held in March, is not only the cheekiest player of the year, but has been playing the best.
 
Gaultier reached six out of eight finals in the first half of 2009, winning both the Tournament of Champions and the Super Series Finals where he looked the best player in the world from start to finish.
 
He had a new team around him, worked hard for many weeks, and developed his body and state of mind. His ability to mix the short and the long games, his capacity to switch from defence to attack and back again with disorienting fluidity, the speed with which accelerated the rallies when his opponent was weakening, all these were greater than before.
 
Gaultier is aware that he has improved, but by how much, he is less sure. His main fault, a combustible temperament, has seemed a little more channelled, with regular inputs from what he calls his mind coach.
 
Against this, Ashour and Shabana have both won titles in Kuwait, Gaultier has not. They may feel more at home here. They may also have been keeping some of their powder dry for Kuwait.
 
Here we should mention Gaultier's compatriot and inspiration. Thierry Lincou, the former World Champion who is trying to eke the remains of a very special career, could easily become inspired himself by playing, possibly for the last time, in the event in which he made French history.
 
Lincou at thirty-three years of age may still be good enough to beat anyone. Nick Matthew however may be good enough to win the championship.
 
There have been many courageous comebacks over the years but few better than that of the Englishman who was out of it for nine months with a shoulder injury but came back to beat Ashour, Gaultier and Darwish this year and reach a career-high ranking of World No.1.
 
In the process Matthew became the top Englishman. Ordinarily you would say that his predecessor, his fellow Englishman James Willstrop would be a title contender too, he certainly has the talent, but the first half of the year was spoiled by illness and injury and he slid from the top ten.
 
There is one other former World Champion who will be a contender in Kuwait, David Palmer, who too may have enough left in him for another serious challenge. He is recently impressed the Wallabies Coach Robbie Deans who asked to see whether his rigorous training methods might help the Australian rugby team.
 
Fitness and stamina have been cornerstones of a will to win which has made Palmer one of the most successful players of modern times. “How do you keep going when your legs are gone?” asked Deans, who played squash with him at the Sydney football stadium complex.
 
Quite a few players on the PSA World Tour have wanted to know that. But Palmer wasn't letting on. “It's like playing chess at a million miles an hour,” was his most insightful comment. He may be thirty-three years of age, but underestimating him will probably be costly. Even for the Egyptians.
 
The Kuwait Men’s World Open 2009 will be staged from the 1st to 7th November and boast prize money of US$275,000, the largest ever offered by any World Open or World Tour event. For more information about the first official sporting World Open Championship to be hosted in Kuwait which is a landmark in the country’s sporting history, visit the events official website: www.KuwaitWorldOpen2009.com
 
By Richard Eaton

Egypt is the new capital of world squash, according to its head coach Amir Wagih, speaking in the first flush of delight after Ramy Ashour captured his first World Open title in Manchester, England last year.