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Canary Wharf Squash Classic: final

In Sport on March 23, 2013 at 12:33 PM

James Willstrop won his fourth Canary Wharf title under the lights at East Wintergarden, beating Peter Barker 11-8, 5-11, 11-3, 11-4.

Before a packed crowd, Willstrop – who has played in each of the tournament’s ten years – put in a faultless display to overcome no.4 seed Barker, playing some of the best squash of his career at the tournament having beaten no.1 seed Nick Matthew 3-1 in last night’s semi-final.

Willstrop said: “I am very happy. Winning titles at this level is just getting harder all the time.

“The work all of us put in as we try to win is immense – especially here in London, one of the great venues and such a wonderful event.”

Willstrop should know, having been at the top of the game for over a decade, and faced many a battle with Peter Barker, with the head-to-head in PSA tournaments now standing at 18-1 in the tall Yorkshireman’s favour.

But facing Barker on such a run would seem a tougher challenge than usual, the Essex player having dispatched world no.27 Alan Clyne fairly comfortably in three in the first round, world no.12 Tom Richards in four in the next, then Matthew last night.

And so it proved, right from the off – Barker taking the first four points of the match, with two being awarded as strokes as Barker forced Willstrop out of position.

But Willstrop forced his way back to 6-6 – the pair fighting out several long rallies with neither giving an inch for their opponent to jump in on the attack and volley.

Of the next five rallies, one long rally went to Willstrop, three were called as lets and one as a stroke to Barker (in general, the match was much cleaner than Barker’s semi-final against Matthew, though).

Yet Willstrop kept his nerve after these tense exchanges, at 7-7, to go on to take the game 11-8 on the back of a cleverly improvised smash down the line, a great cross-court length and a couple of tight drop shots.

Barker fought back in the second, racing to a 6-2, then 10-3 lead, while showcasing his much-improved front-court play on display this tournament, which he remarked on afterwards – as a watching coach said, “if you can out-drop Willstrop, you deserve to win”.

Here, Willstrop got two back with some smart drives – but, after what must be said was a soft let in favour, Barker took the game thanks to Willstrop hitting the ball back on himself

Barker also took the first point of the third, with a great delayed boast which wrong-footed Willstrop, but lost the second due to some stern refereeing in, first, calling the no let when Barker was a little wrong-footed and running awkwardly, and then not allowing Barker to review after he had waited to see the replay on the big screen.

From here, Willstrop started to build a commanding lead, starting to pull the strings with smart drop shots after Barker, despite some great retrieval, could only loop or boast (side wall to front wall) some of Willstrop’s perfectly-executed lobs.

Willstrop’s control continued in the fourth, winning the first six in the game, meaning he had won ten straight points.

Barker mounted a small comeback, increasingly trying to beat Willstrop at the front court, but the Pontefract player – moving, as noted by many fans, as well as he has ever done – handled nearly everything Barker threw at him, and usually replied with even more – winning the match with a drive after Barker was the first to leave the ball even an inch loose in a drop/counter-drop exchange.

“Willstrop’s four in the world and I don’t think he’s happy with that – he wants to be back at the top of the game again,” Barker said. “He’s played well all week and he deserves it.”

“Last night, I was really trying to puff it up and put in another performance today. Not quite there, but a pretty good week for me.”

…A bit of an understatement, in truth, from Barker – if a typically humble one – considering he came in to the tournament a major injury doubt after the Kuwait Cup. And that now the 575 ranking points he will receive may well take him above Amr Shabana, up to no.7 in the world rankings.

Indeed, it was a great week for nearly everyone involved in the tournament – thoughts echoed by John Garwood, the Group Company Secretary of tournament sponsors Canary Wharf Group plc.

He said: “Every night this week, we have seen about a dozen reasons why squash should be an Olympic sport and golf shouldn’t.”

Amen to that.

Canary Wharf Squash Classic: semi finals

In Sport on March 22, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Peter Barker stunned three-time reigning champion Nick Matthew to win last night’s semi-final 11-7, 11-9, 7-11, 11-8.

 

The victory will be doubly sweet for the no.4 seed, having struggled with injuries this season and with a head-to-head record against Matthew which, in his words, is “still is embarrassing, really” – two wins to Matthew’s 20+ plus, 18 of which in PSA tournaments.

 

He said: “I’ve had a few injuries this season and to put a performance in like that in front of my home crowd is pretty special.

 

“It’s good to get a win over Nick. I got a bit lucky at the end; I was fishing a bit, using any trick of the trade.”

 

He certainly did employ some… intelligent movement, let’s say, at the end of the fourth, going from 8-8 to matchball at 10-8 courtesy of two dubious strokes; the latter of which when he shaped up to hit a volley then decided – or perhaps given what he said, engineered – to instead take a step back, as if to hit it after the bounce, into Matthew, and call an infringement.

 

(Such play in squash is very difficult to officiate, and not dissimilar to judging if footballers have ‘manufactured contact’ to win a penalty. An off-duty referee I spoke to afterwards said earlier in the game this decision would have probably only been a let, but that the ref had no leeway at such a crucial juncture).

 

However, Barker getting to 8-8 up in the fourth was little down to luck; indeed, if anything Matthew probably got the rub of the green earlier in the many tough decisions the ref had to make.

 

At 7-7 in the first, for instance, the ref had made 14 let (I.e. no let/let/stroke) decisions – nine of which called by Matthew – for the 14 points actually registered on the scoresheet.

 

And in one sequence of three points, Matthew was awarded two borderline strokes, before Barker was given a let for what looked a clear stroke, certainly to Barker and the audibly sceptical crowd.

 

But in spite of the (undeniably crowd-pleasing) controversy – or indeed because of it, let calls partly showing faith in player’s retrieving ability – there was some quality squash played, with many long rallies down the lines which then exploded into flurries of activity upon a well-placed drop.

 

At 7-7, Matthew made an uncharacteristic error on a drop, before Barker executed a similar one to perfection – then, after another controversial let in Matthew’s favour, Matthew missed an ambitious volley drop on the stretch, probably aware of the quality needed to win every point.

 

On the other hand, on matchball Barker made a tricky squeeze drop to win the game – which was greeted with a big fist pump.

 

With the standard of play so high, both players went to increasingly fine margins to win points, so the play began to open up.

 

Barker took the second 11-9. But even then, many – including the crowd around me (“Peter’s red-lining”) – believed Matthew’s infamous fitness tenacity and fitness would win out in the end.

 

So it proved in the third, which Matthew won 11-6. But it was a tenser game the scoreline suggests – being 6-6 at one point, and with both players, judging by their exchanges with the ref, feeling the pressure.

 

Given just a let at 2-1 down, Barker asked: “John, you said earlier to him there was no room to play that – what’s the difference?”. “You did have room,” came the ref’s blunt reply, much to the crowd’s amusement.

 

And 5-3 up, when Barker called his own double bounce, Matthew asked the ref what his call was. The ref replied that the ball was not up because Mr Barker called it, and a chippy Matthew replied: “Can you call it please and not rely on him?”

 

Still, Barker held his nerve to take the match 11-8 in the fourth – even if a little “fishing” was required.

 

In the final, Barker will meet James Willstrop, after the tall Yorkshireman beat Mohamed El Shorbagy 6-11, 11-8, 11-9, 11-7 in the other semi.

 

The young Egyptian came out of the blocks firing, significantly improved on what was, by his own admission, a sub-par performance qualifier Henrik Mustonen in the quarters.

 

From the start, El Shorbagy matched Willstrop in the long rallies – typically Willstrop’s forte – and was able to finish several rallies smartly with clever drops and tight drive-cum-drops, taking the first 11-6.

 

However, after the first game, though El Shorbagy was still hitting and moving very well, Willstrop was largely able to control the rallies with his long reach from his 6’4” frame and vary the pace brilliantly, going on to take the following games to 8, 9 and 7 respectively.

 

But Willstrop was full of praise for the rising star, with whom he is already developing an intriguing rivalry – the Yorkshireman having lost to the Egyptian in a thrilling five-game World Championship semi last year, but avenged the defeat with a 3-0 in the Kuwait Cup last week, and now here.

 

“Mohamed and I have developed a great rivalry and respect. He beat me in the semi finals of the World Championships to show how dangerous and talented a player he is,” he said.

 

“I am happy with my movement and the way I am playing, but there’s another massive battle looming tomorrow, where I will need everything to be working.”

Canary Wharf Squash Classic: quarter finals

In Sport on March 21, 2013 at 12:28 PM

All four top seeds progressed from the Canary Wharf quarter finals yesterday, setting up two mouth-watering semis today.

Egyptian rising star Mohamed El Shorbagy had to fight hardest to get there, pushed all the way to the final fifth game by a tenacious performance from qualifier Henrik Mustonen.
Any suspicions the 22-year-old would be overawed by the occasion – his only previous match against a top five player was another five game match that went El Shorbagy’s way – were soon dispelled as he won the first game 11-3 on the back of some delicate drop shots, and errors from El Shorbagy, seemingly trying to finish rallies a little too ambitiously even for him.
He shored up his game in the second, with the result many long rallies showcasing both players’ athleticism and, particularly, the Egyptian’s versatile shot-making – including an occasional kind of topspin drive betraying his fondness for tennis (which usually works to the detriment of squash’s short, snappy hitting).
But El Shorbagy’s powerful play was not enough to overcome Mustonen’s impressive court coverage in the third – the Finn taking it 11-7, and putting the world no. 5 2-1 down against a qualifier. A very sticky predicament.
As indeed Shorbagy admitted, claiming afterwards he was “nervous”, but glad he “found a way to win” against an opponent who played “such a fast game”
Fittingly, the fourth started tensely – firstly with Mustonen slipping and claiming a let for contact, which the Egyptian protested wasn’t there. “I don’t agree with you,” said the ref. “Of course you don’t,” El Shorbagy retorted, tongue-in-cheek. Then El Shorbagy had a let of his own – before going on to take the next four points in a row, and then take the game 11-6, thanks to some well-placed drives and drops.
Yet any suspicions the young Finn would pale in the fifth – content at his tournament run which has already seen him beat players about 30 and 40 places above him – proved unfounded, despite Shorbagy racing to a 5-0 lead.
Mustonen’s comeback began with some uncharacteristic errors from El Shorbagy, who mishit a drop, got out of position for a stroke against him, then had two mishits in a row – one, inexplicably, on a return. Then, from 7-4, El Shorbagy made a slight error on a drop and another on an ambitious cross-court nick attempt.
But he arrested the decline with a stunning drop volley, making it 8-7 to him. Mustonen won the next point – on the third attempt, with two contentious lets for Mustonen, one he had to review to get – with a stroke, after El Shorbagy was only able to dig a tight squeeze drop back out by his body.
Then it was El Shorbagy’s turn for a stroke, and he made it 10-8 with a great drop shot – sealing the win 11-9 on his second matchball.
El Shorbagy will now meet James Willstrop in today’s semi final, after the tall Yorkshireman beat Daryl Selby 11-7, 11-5, 11-7.
Despite very willing running, Selby struggled to find ways past Willstrop’s impressive reach – which he so often uses to control rallies from the centre of the court – and could not change his “big fat zero” in their head-to-head.
On the other side of the draw, Nick Matthew had to be at the top of his game to beat world no. 20 Stephen Coppinger.
The first two games, which Matthew took 11-6, 11-4, may look quite comfortable on paper, but were anything but on court – the Cape Town-based player forcing Matthew to play attacking squash and hit several spectacular smashed nicks to win rallies.
And causing Matthew to get frustrated over decisions – although the combative Yorkshireman as much as said that he courts this controversy to spur him on, when he told the referee off for admonishing a shouting crowd member.
“No, we [the players] enjoy the noise – come on, enjoy yourself tonight, guys,” he said. And he also mentioned how much he enjoyed the crowd “hooting and hollering” during his fiery first round encounter with Miguel Angel Rodriguez.
Coppinger played some brilliant squash to take the third 12-10, but could not quite stay at the world no. 2’s level in the fourth, which Matthew took 11-3.
Matthew now plays in the semi final Peter Barker, who beat Tom Richards, 8-11, 11-4, 11-5, 11-7.
Richards came out the blocks firing, with a vast array of clever shots, all on point – Barker himself admitted he thought he’d played quite well in the first, and that the Surrey player had just been a little better.
After that, though, Barker’s trademark line and length – allied to some smart front-court play, and retrieving that definitely put paid to any lingering injury doubts – told.

Canary Wharf Squash Classic: day two

In Sport on March 20, 2013 at 11:25 AM

Nick Matthew and Miguel Angel Rodriguez produced some – often literally – breathtaking squash in their first round match, with Matthew, by his own admission, “lucky” to win.

 

At 70 minutes, it wasn’t quite the marathon the two had in their only previous encounter at last year’s North American Open – which Matthew won in five after a gruelling 92 minutes.

 

But Rodriguez probably deserved at least a fifth here, as Matthew himself acknowledged in a very honest interview.

 

“He was faster than me, he was better than me,” he said.

“I’m not being funny; he played the best squash today and I’m lucky to go through.”

 

Rodriguez certainly started the brighter – his infamous retrieving ability forcing Matthew to hit increasingly low-percentage shots to win points, and inevitably leading to some mistakes.

 

But the 27-year-old Colombian’s speed belies impressive shot-making, shown here as he more than held his own in long rallies and finished some with clever drops and delayed drives, making it 6-2.

 

Matthew came back into from here, but was made fully aware of the lengths he must go when Rodriguez performed a spectacular full-length dive, with next to nothing breaking his fall and, frankly, little sense either, as Matthew was still in the better position and duly smashed away the dive. Great spectacle, though.

 

The remainder of the game featured frantic rallies and several contentious refereeing decisions; something Matthew alluded to afterwards, claiming that, due to some of the “incredible” balls Rodriguez gets back, no-one really knows if anything is a double bounce (which players are sort of expected to call on themselves) or a let.

 

Rodriguez edged the first 11-9, and the second game continued in much the same vein – neck-and-neck, following some astoundingly varied rallies which often saw the pair sprinting from one corner to another between balls.

 

At 8-8, Matthew received a back-court nick (think, a big net cord in tennis) – a crucial moment the three-time reigning champion noted when talking of his good fortune.

 

Certainly, even for the world no. 2, a 2-0 deficit would have been a tough ask to overturn against such a fiery opponent – but Matthew was probably being a little too honest.

 

Because there was little fortunate about the next two rallies which won him the game – a perfectly-constructed point which saw Rodriguez scrambling too much for even him to cope with, sending the ball flying out the back, and then smashing the ball into the nick after a reaction body-shot from Rodriguez.

 

And also because Matthew was not, at least in his opinion, getting the rub of the green from the ref – joking afterwards that, like the crowd, the ref certainly wanted to see a fifth game, and that the bloke who shouted “no let” in Matthew’s favour at one point should come down and ref after ten pints.

 

It was again nip-and-tuck in the third, right up until 7-6 to Matthew, where Rodriguez started to show the toll of his Herculean just a little, and Matthew’s marginally superior lengths told – Matthew taking the game 11-6.

 

The fight was far from over, however; the fourth showcasing a bewildering array of rallies which I could only begin to do justice to here.

 

One featured a cross-court drive that Matthew shaped up to take off the middle of the backwall. Rodriguez, eager to get any yard of position he could, took up a central position and did a squat jump, in anticipation of a possibly 100mph+ shot shooting just under him! (Indeed, as looked to have happened when he did so and Matthew played the shot in the first).

 

Sensibly, though, if a little aggrieved, Matthew called the let – protesting to the ref that if he hit one of those “his wife is going to be ringing me up”.

 

Rodriguez has a fascinating style, with movement unlike the long, loping styles most players employ.

 

With his bright orange shoes, it’s as if his feet are on fire; and together with his low centre of gravity, he often resembles a crab furiously scuttling across hot sand (that’s meant as a compliment).

 

This was seen to full effect in the fourth, as the game became even more stretched – Matthew winning it 11-9 after some great lobs in a typically long rally.

 

Elsewhere, Edinburgh’s Alan Clyne put up a spirited fight against no. 4 seed Peter Barker.

 

The world no. 27 would have come into the game with high hopes, given Barker’s injury worry from Kuwait, and his own impressive display in qualifying – having beaten Joel Hinds 3-0 (thanks in part to winning a game when Hinds had to exit for new shoelaces) then world no. 37 Jonathan Kemp 3-1.

 

But Barker’s injury held up, and he proved too strong, winning in what was, in the end, a fairly comfortable 11-7, 11-3, 11-7.

 

And Tom Richards and Steven Coppinger also progressed to the second round, with respective 3-0 victories over Mohd Ali Anwar Reda and Alistair Walker respectively.

Canary Wharf Squash Classic – day one

In Sport on March 19, 2013 at 11:03 AM

Daryl Selby and Simon Rosner produced the tie of day one at the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, as Selby triumphed in five games after a near hour-and-a-half of thrilling squash.

A gutsy performance, full of tireless running and amazing gets, saw him bounce back from 2-1 down to win 11-9, 4-11, 7-11, 11-8, 11-5.

The Essex player started well, taking a 9-3 lead with Rosner getting increasingly frustrated with Selby’s let calls, most of which – probably rightly – granted by the ref.

However, he squandered the lead courtesy of some strong play from the German and some errors of his own – but stemmed the tide at 9-9 with two tight volley drops to take the game.

Rosner raced to a 6-1 lead in the second, and two great drop shots brought him the gameball at 10-4, which he smashed into the nick – the join of the side-wall and floor – with aplomb, using all of his considerable 6’3 frame and then some with his jump.

A combination of great court coverage and clever use of the video review system – which turned and upheld some calls in Selby’s favour, much to Rosner’s chagrin – saw Selby take a 5-2 lead, but three mistakes in a row brought the scores level, and then Rosner got the better of some tight rallies to take the game 11-7.

Selby again started brightly, with an inch-perfect drop on the first point, and controlling the rallies after to make it 5-2 – but Rosner fought back.

A key point at 8-6 to Selby saw the Englishman call and receive a stroke – angering Rosner who thought, with some reason, he had cleared the ball enough for just a let (replay of the point).

So he reviewed, but the decision was upheld. His audacious response was a return smashed crosscourt into the nick on the next point.

Then it was Rosner’s turn to receive a borderline stroke, which Selby wasn’t pleased about but had no reviews left with which to challenge.

At 8-9 to Selby, the Essex player received a let which could have been a stroke, but won the replayed point, followed by a rallying cry – and then the gameball after that, followed by an even more almightly roar.

That, and more contentious let decisions in the fifth, took the wind out of Rosner’s sails just enough for Selby to edge in front, setting up the matchball with a perfectly-constructed rally of lobs of ultra-tight drives.

Fittingly, Selby won it with a long rally which ended in him calling a borderline let/stroke – the umpires awarding the stroke, which was reviewed but, after an anxious wait, upheld.

Elsewhere, qualifier Henrik Mustonen, world no. 53, beat world no. 17 Adrian Grant 3-11, 11-2, 11-6, 11-4, in the upset of the day.

Although it would not have come as too much of a surprise to those who saw the 22-year-old Finn dispatch both Kristian Frost Olesen, one rank below him, and then world no. 32 Gregoire Marche in qualifying.

Nor did his impressive athleticism comes as a surprise after the master of ceremonies, Alan Thatcher, stated that his training regime involves a gruelling series of sprints and runs followed by a lengthy swim in the lake in his “huge” back garden in his hometown of Hollola.

The first game went comfortably to Mustonen then the next to Grant.

Thereafter, though, especially in the second and fourth games, Mustonen outfoxed and out-manouevred Grant – ten years his senior and a mainstay in the top 20 since 2006, who would surely have hoped this near-homecoming (he lives in Dulwich) would have proved more of a swansong.

Enfield’s Adrian Waller, another qualifier, lost to world no. 5 Mohamed El Shorbagy, but not before he gave the rising Egyptian star a severe scare.

El Shorbagy took the first 11-7, but to do so was forced to bring out his most inventive shot-making and almost physics-defying court coverage, drawing several gasps of amazement from the crowd.

Waller could be forgiven for feeling discouraged for his efforts only earning seven points, but hecame out even stronger in the second, with the scores nip and tuck all the way up to the tie break (two clear points when the scores reach 10-10).

Here, he won the point with a sublime drop shot on the return off the back wall – El Shorbagy replying with typical insouciance, smashing the return cross-court into the nick.

Waller won the next on a stroke, and held his nerve again to win the replayed point when he was only awarded a let on point after – the wry grin El Shorbagy displayed when looking at Waller’s review suggesting even the Egyptian thought it was stroke.

He could not quite match the same effort in the next two games, though, which El Shorbagy took impressively 11-5 and 11-6.

It was a similar tale in wildcard Charles Sharpes’ match against world no.4 James Willstrop – though the Kingston player did not quite seem to pose the same threat to the number two seed.

Sharpes started positively, though the longer rallies invariably either went Willstrop’s way or ended in Sharpes calling a let (which didn’t go unnoticed to Willstrop, once jokingly asking if the 21-year-old wanted a let when frantically trying to hit the ball behind his own back).

Sharpes did play some brilliant squash to take the second 11-9. But in the next two games Willstrop, with his 6’4 frame and impressive reach, largely controlled the game from the T, often appearing that he had Sharpes on a string, especially when bringing out glimpses of his now-infamous double-fake shot from the recent North American Open.

Quizzed on this afterwards, he said: “I keep trying to do it, which is not sensible really.

“Its popularity has been quite unbelievable. At first I did not really know what the fuss was about, but now I do, and that I must promote it to try to make a difference and help get squash into the Olympics.”

Joel Durston

Matthew and Willstrop set to lock horns at Canary Wharf

In Sport on March 12, 2013 at 9:22 PM

Fierce rivals Nick Matthew and James Willstrop will lock horns again from next Monday at the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

The two Yorkshiremen – who have been sharing the spoils at the top of squash for about a decade, and not always entirely harmoniously – go into this PSA International 50 event at the East Wintergarden venue with three titles apiece.

Top seed and World No. 2 Matthew – who reached the final of the North American Open just over a week ago – will be looking for his fourth title on the trot, having beaten Willstrop 11-7, 11-8, 11-9 in last year’s final.

He faces a tough tie in the first round in the form of Miguel Angel Rodriguez – the 27-year-old Colombian renowned for his amazing court coverage and spectacular full-length dives, and who took Matthew to a marathon five games in the first round of last year’s North American Open.

If he can overcome Rodriguez’s lightning speed, Matthew, 32, will face South African Steve Coppinger or Alister Walker, who decided a couple of years ago to represent his country of birth, Botswana, after a fallout with England Squash in late 2010.

Then fourth seed Peter Barker lies in wait in Thursday’s semi final – if, that is, the ties go as the seeding forecasts and Barker beats a qualifier and then World No. 12 Tom Richards, also playing a qualifier in the first round.

On the other side of the 16-man draw, James Willstrop, 29, begins his tournament against wildcard Englishman Charles Sharpes – and, presuming he prevails, faces the winner of what promises to be a close encounter between world numbers 15 and 16, Harlow-born Daryl Selby and German Simon Rosner.

Aiming to upset the home favourites will be rising star Mohamed El Shorbagy, the 22-year-old Egyptian now resident in Bristol, having earned a scholarship to train under the tutelage of squash great Jonah Barrington at the prestigious Millfield School, and then a scholarship at UWE – where he studies business.

In the first round, El Shorbagy faces a qualifier from this weekend’s Qualifying at the Wimbledon Racquets and Fitness Club, and then the winner of the opening game of the tournament – another qualifier against Adrian Grant, the World No. 17 making the short hop over the river from his Greenwich home.

If El Shorbagy and Willstrop continue their impressive form, they will then face each other on Thursday in a mouth-watering repeat of both last year’s semi-final – which Willstrop won 3-1 – and December’s semi-final at the World Championship in Qatar – in which El Shorbagy triumphed 11-8 in the fifth after a gruelling 112 minutes. (Consider that rough equivalent to 7-5 in the fifth set of a five-hour tennis match.)

This encounter would, given Matthew’s probable progression, set up one of two enthralling prospects for Friday night’s final; the reigning master against the pretender to the throne – Matthew v El Shorbagy – or the Real/Barca, Federer/Nadal, Frazier/Ali of squash – Matthew v Willstrop.

Whatever the outcome, one thing’s (pretty much) for certain; the spectacular arched glass East Wintergarden venue on the banks of the Thames will provide a fittingly spectacular showcase for some world-class squash.

And hopefully the tournament will give a much-deserved boost to squash’s profile, as it strives for inclusion into the Olympic family from 2020 (having recently gained endorsement from a certain Mr Federer, no less)…

Joel Durston