THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD HAS SHIFTED

“Anybody wanting to rise in international squash will have to come to play and train in Egypt,” Wagih asserted, an understandable remark though one the organisers of England's World Class Performance Programme might dispute.
 
Nevertheless Wagih's words have a resonance, especially for those who watched Ramy Ashour become World Champion, or the 17-year-old Mohammed El Shorbagy ambush former World No.1 Thierry Lincou, or the enduring brilliance and magnanimity of Amr Shabana.
 
Though the titleholder lost a superb semi-final to Ashour it still seemed appropriate that he should pose for photos holding the Premiership trophy whilst wearing the shirt of another Amr - Zaki, then joint top scorer in the world's most famous football league.
 
Amr the squash player should remain World No.1 for a third complete year in February - though preserving fitness may be more difficult. Shabana did not appear on the World Tour until mid-February when he lost 2-11 9-11 11-8 8-11 to Ashour in the Toronto final, and his first title did not come till April.
 
There had been hints from the start that Ashour might steal some of his thunder. The 21-year returned from his own hiatus injury in January, winning the first Super Series event by defeating James Willstrop 11-7 13-11 11-9 in the final of the Bear Stearns Tournament of Champions at Grand Central Terminal in New York. Ashour also beat Shabana.
 
But Willstrop bounced back by winning the Swedish Open in the city of Linkoping three weeks later, and continued the best form of his life by overcoming Gregory Gaultier 11-6
6-11 11-9 8-11 11-4 in the Davenport Pro Championships final in Virginia at the start of March.
 
When he also won the Canary Wharf Classic in April, struggling back from two games to one down and from cumulative fatigue to win a thriller against Cameron Pilley under the soaring arch of East Wintergarden, it was the Englishman's sixth title in seven finals.
 
It was here that the Professional Squash Association trialled an electronic refereeing system which allowed three referees to make decisions independently - done partly to placate an IOC which had allegedly been concerned about player-referee confrontations.
 
Between Willstrop's New York and Swedish finals came a happy return to form by the admirable Thierry Lincou, who scored his first World Tour title for more than a year by beating David Palmer, another former World No.1, 11-10(7-5) 7-11 11-8 6-11
11-7 in the Dayton Open final. But it took more than an hour and a half.
 
From there the Tour moved to the Red Sea in April when Ashour and Shabana produced another dazzling encounter, the younger man prevailing again, but more thrillingly, by 11-10(2-0) 9-11 11-7 9-11 11-10 (2-0) at the Hurghada International.
 
A week later Shabana had revenge, if such it can be described between two such close colleagues. A 11-9 11-7 11-10 win in the Kuwait Open final was the outcome of Shabana's aim "to play perfect squash," because "that is the only way to beat him."
 
Shabana also said he passes tips to his younger compatriot, while Ashour claimed it feels like playing a brother. Whether Wagih would expect visitors to Egypt to become as fraternal as part of their squash education is unclear, though it is certain many could not.
 
But the following month brought Egyptian setbacks. Ashour and Shabana were both beaten early at the Dunlop British Open at Liverpool, the final of which saw David Palmer underline himself as the most successful player since the end of the Khan era a decade ago.
 
An epic 112-minute 11-9 11-9 8-11 6-11 13-11 win over Willstrop in a contest of varied and relentless movement required Palmer to recover from 6-9 in the decider and to save two match points in perhaps the ancient tournament's most exciting final ever.
 
"And I only came here wanting to find out whether I could still compete at this level,” the 32-year-old said.
 
Shabana also lost disappointingly in the showdown match of the ATCO Super Series Finals at London's Broadgate Arena - to his friend Gaultier. "I was very relaxed, calm and serene," the Frenchman said after his 11-9 11-8 11-8 success. Like that, Gaultier is very hard to stop.
 
Come August, Palmer triumphed again. The winner of four British and two World Opens had never captured his home title before, but travelled to Clare in South Australia to achieved it. A 11-7 14-12 11-8 win over Kashif Shuja of New Zealand got Palmer's name alongside the great Geoff Hunt's and extended his number of titles to twenty-three, more than any active player.
 
Another blast from the past emerged at the Petrosport International in Cairo which was won by Wael El Hindi. The Egyptian is coached by Jonah Barrington, the six-time British Open Champion, who had helped El Shorbagy become World Junior Champion only four days before in Switzerland.
 
By now Shabana needed another injury break, but Nick Matthew, the former British Open Champion, was returning from an eight-months out following shoulder surgery, winning a career seventh title by beating Pilley 11-8 11-6 6-11 12-10 in the Dutch Open in Amsterdam in the first week in September.
 
That same week brought weather problems. A hurricane hit southern United States, causing the postponement of the BCD & SMH Houston Open; then the Sweet Home Chicago Open, the first outdoor tournament in the US, was forced inside because of rain. It seemed to suit the Brit though: Peter Barker winning the title by beating Palmer, arguably his biggest scalp.
 
Remarkably Barker then did it again, denying Palmer victory in the Australian’s fiftieth World Tour final, following his straight games win in Chicago by winning 7-11 11-7 11-4 2-11 11-8 at the Merritt Properties Open in Baltimore.
 
Come October, Karim Darwish continued the improvement he displayed in reaching the World Open final by defeating Shabana to win the Qatar Classic in Doha, defeating the top-seeded titleholder 11-4 11-5 11-3 in less than half an hour.
 
"It was just that I was greedier for this title," said the recently married Darwish, who thus earned the fourteenth title of his career, his first Super Series title, and a career high World Ranking of two.
 
However Shabana came back well, retaining the title at the Hong Kong Open at the end of October by winning 11-7 13-15 8-11 11-2 11-3 against Gaultier on the outdoor court overlooking the thrilling Tsimshatsui watefront.
 
Gaultier saved six game balls in the second game and appeared to have turned the tables after winning the third, at which stage he seemed likely to avenge a loss to Shabana in the 2007 final.
 
However, the top seed returned in determined mood for the twenty second World Tour title of his career and one which suggests he won't to relinquish the top spot for a while yet. Told you so, Wagih might say.
 
Issued by iSPORTmedia

By Richard Eaton
“Egypt is the new capital of the squash world,” claimed Amir Wagih, the Egyptian Head Coach, after a sensational World Open at Manchester in which his country provided the first qualifier to reach the quarterfinals in twenty-two years, three semi-finalists, and a thrilling new champion.