MEN’S WORLD TOUR REVIEW

For in that short time Ramy Ashour, the 20 year-old Super Series Finals titleholder, went from being within one point in a thousand of the World No.1 ranking, to being completely superseded by his compatriot. One moment Ashour seemed about to clean up, the next he was ousted from the Tour by a foot injury, and then sidelined for the rest of the year.
 
And it was the removal, rather than the advance of the Ashour threat, which galvanised Shabana’s dormant genius. From not having won a tournament for seven months, he won twenty-five matches in a row, extended his total of World Tour titles to twenty, and become the first player to win a third World Open title since the legendary Jansher Khan eleven years earlier.
 
Shabana won the Saudi International, Qatar Classic, and Hong Kong Open in one swing of the men’s international circuit, and then, when you thought he had to rest up for the World Open in Bermuda, he was unable to. At just about the worst possible time he was required to take part in the Arab Championships in Cairo. He won those too.
 
Shabana did it all in thirty-four days, with a jack-knifing 15,000 mile itinerary which would have finished most players. He fought tiredness, jetlag, and mental drift, as well as the challenges of Thierry Lincou, David Palmer, and Ramy Ashour in Al Khobar, and of Gregory Gaultier, his friend, in the finals in Doha and Hong Kong.
 
Gaultier tried his maximum only till the semis in those three tournaments, he claimed, in order to get to Bermuda in decent shape. It appeared that he had. He romped to the World Open final without dropping a game, while Shabana, who had arrived on the island with only one day to spare, laboured through.
 
“Once I got into the tournament and a rhythm of doing things it was all right,” said Shabana. “But even I am surprised. If you had said to me four years ago that I would win one World Open I would have taken that. Three is a dream.
 
“I don’t think I have ever played as well before as in this final. You raise your game to that of your opponent, and Gregory had beaten everyone 3-0. I had to play my best.”
 
Admirable though Shabana’s sentiment was, it may not have been entirely accurate. Well as he played, the final was more notable for what seemed like an acute anxiety attack by Gaultier.
 
He was unable to move properly, and tried to escape from difficulties by playing short early and often. This played right into the area of Shabana’s greatest strength. This made it hardly surprising that the Egyptian triumphed 11-7 11-4 11-5 in only forty-two minutes.
 
“My legs felt heavy after four points,” Gaultier said. I didn’t expect to be feeling a hundred kilos overweight. I didn’t think I should have lost last year’s final in Cairo, so maybe I put too much pressure on myself in wanting to win.”
 
Shabana’s comments about his own brilliance may thus have been more selfless than they sounded, detracting from his friend’s feeling of disaster while. Certainly Gaultier’s agony was agony for many people.
 
Almost everyone could sense it. His face drained. He hurled his racket away in despair, embraced Shabana massively, and departed close to tears, looking as though he were heading for the gallows. Thierry Lincou came and placed an arm round his shoulders.
 
”I know how he feels,” Shabana said. “He beat me last year in front of my home crowd in the semi-finals, so I know exactly what it’s like.”
 
Did the atmosphere contribute to Gaultier’s hyper-tension? From Hong Kong harbour to the Pharoah’s tombs, the World Open moved to another cultural and geographic marvel – inside a state-of-the-art, semi-transparent, demountable stadium, and right next to the turquoise and purple ocean.
 
The court was filled by extravagantly dressed traditional dancers, who filled the place with movement and excitement and delayed the final by half an hour. They created an acclaim which may have created extra pressure. What followed was almost an anti-climax.
 
But the tournament did have other highlights. There was Alex Gough making the quarters at almost 37 years-old, a quicker mover than either Ken Hiscoe or Jonah Barrington, the only other two men capable of reaching the later stages of major events at a comparable age.
 
There were two of the gutsiest comebacks from two games down by James Willstrop. The Englishman also won the Canary Wharf Classic in April and the English Grand Prix in Birmingham in September, suggesting that finally he has completed his recovery from last year’s severe food poisoning.
 
And there was the promise of Omar Mosaad, one of a bevy of Egyptians threatening to swamp the game, and the inch-by-inch progress of Nick Matthew, who reached the semi-finals.
 
Two months before Matthew lost his British Open title but gained consolation by becoming US Open Champion in New York, beating Ashour and then, in the final, Willstrop by 11-7 11-4 11-7.  “I have never seen him play so well,” his compatriot said generously.
 
Matthew, at twenty-seven, has still been trying to add dimensions to his game, and a four-game loss to Shabana at the British Open suggested he is succeeding. A year-end ranking of five equalled his highest.
 
Nor had Gaultier very often played as well as while becoming the first Frenchman to win the British Open. He overcame Lincou 11-4 10-11 11-9 11-7 in a final of odd antics, bickering with the referee, humour, and a tension between competition and comradeship, hinting at the complex relationship between the former protégé and mentor.
 
“This was one of my two targets,” said Gaultier. “It has given me great confidence for the other one.”  Which made his World Open debacle even more a mystery of the human psyche.
 
Lincou won his Manchester semi against David Palmer, who continued till the end despite a gluteal injury. “I hope David recovers quickly,” said Lincou, with some empathy.  Both are 31 years-old and both may be short of time, he knew too well.
 
Which made Palmer’s loss of his World Open title, in a four-game semi-final defeat to Shabana, slightly ominous. He fought hard as always, but his movement, especially on the slippery surface, looked reduced.
 
In between the World and the British Opens came as bizarre a flight of fantasy as you could imagine, with Jansher Khan, the man who once dominated both, making a strange but losing comeback at the age of thirty-eight.
 
Jansher had been seeking his one hundredth title at the inaugural London Open in October, but there was never any chance he would succeed. Instead he lost in four games to Scott Handley, a capable Englishman but ranked outside the top fifty.
 
Why did Jansher risk such indignity? His old buddy, Zubair Khan, the promoter, must have been very persuasive.
 
Two months before in August, Manchester had also been the focal point, hosting the ATCO Super Series Finals, in which Ashour became the first debutant to win the title, since Del Harris in 1996. He overcome Gaultier 11-10 11-8 4-11 11-4 in the final but even then injury was an issue for the rising star.
 
“I didn’t expect to be here a few days ago,” he said. “Then I had to slow things down after I got an ankle injury in the third.”
 
It warned us that Ashour might have difficulty lighting up the second half of the year like he had the first.  He captured his first title at the Canadian Classic in Toronto in January, beating Palmer in straight games and uttering what could be his catch phrase: “I play every match as though it were the last day of my life.”
 
Shabana, who lost to Mohammed Aslan Iskandar of Malaysia, described the setback as “a wake-up call,” and responded by beating Anthony Ricketts both at the Windy City Open in Chicago the following week and in the Bear Stearns Tournament of Champions in New York the following month. Shabana also beat Ashour in the New York semis, but the teenager delivered again at the Dayton Open a fortnight later, despite twice being within two points off defeat to John White in the final.
 
This revealed Ashour as not only a magnificent shot-maker but possessing good tactical skills, and in April he showed considerable physical resilience too, capturing back-to-back titles without obvious distress.
 
First he managed an 11-5 11-3 11-10(2-0) revenge over Shabana in the Sheikha Al Saad Kuwait Open final; six days later he denied Palmer revenge by beating him 8-11 11-9 11-9 11-6 in the final of the first of two Qatar Classics during 2007.
 
It was this which made us think Ashour was about to become the biggest thing in squash. He may still do, but his fate reminds us of the fragility of a squash player’s career.

By Richard Eaton
If you had holidayed from civilisation in late October and returned early in December to be told that a brilliant Egyptian had won the World Open, captured five titles in less than six weeks, and earned more than $100,000, the largest amount by any player in a comparably short space of time, you might not have been surprised. And you might have been certain of his name. But you would have been wrong.