Apologies, exceptionally no video, just text. A brief analysis of the main tendencies within the top10 in the 2011 PSA Squash season :
#1 NICK MATTHEW: continues to amaze. We have to remind ourselves that Matthew has never been ranked better than #4 before 2010, and he was already 30 years old by then. This year not only he occupied the #1 spot throughout the year, but he visibly continues to progress and improve technically, as that is probably the least developed part of his game. It's been a great year for Matthew, even if he beat Ramy Ashour only once and lost 4 times to him (with the 0:3 loss at the World Team Championships included), and even if, due to end-season injuries, he will lose his #1 ranking in January 2012. But be assured, he'll be eager to fight back. Will he also be able to fight the age factor for another season?
#2 JAMES WILLSTROP: his year started as it ended in the previous one. Plays beautifully, beats anybody, but loses to Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew. At the end of the year, not only Ramy and Nick got both injured, but Willstrop seemed to raise his already outstanding technical and tactical level to an even further level and won three World Series events in a row and as a result, he'll be ranked for the first time world #1 in the 2012 January rankings. He must be extremely happy, but I guess there are things left to prove: is he by now really better or equal with Ramy and Nick? If all three of them will be healthy in 2012, expect a hell of a season, with a lots of pride on stake!
#3 GREGORY GAULTIER: the tragic figure of the tour is back! After a long hiatus he finally won again a major title and made a few more finals. You never know with Gregory. Will he be disappointed that notwithstanding the good form and great results, he is pretty far away ranking-points-wise from the top spot? Or is he ready to dig in and improve his only weak factor (the mental side) as Matthew does continuously with his (the technical side)? If he is not willing to understand that he must improve this part of his game, there is little chance that he can add to the sole month he has been ranked world #1 in November 2009. If he can take this hurdle, then he could still have the best times in front of him.
#4 RAMY ASHOUR: whilst he was healthy, he seemed to be unbeatable (except for a 5 game loss to Matthew early in the year, but this has been revenged with 4 wins). It has been said often, Ramy is the best thing that could ever happen to squash, but unless he (and his team, does he have one?) start to find a solution to his injury issues, we might risk to see the best thing struggling and leaving the circuit prematurely. Then the best thing could turn into the greatest shame that could ever happen to squash. Therefore, let's just hope he comes back (and remains) healthy in 2012, it would make just such a difference for us, spectators.
#5 KARIM DARWISH: I have a lots of respect for Darwish, having analysed his strengths in a number of posts. In 2009 he was world #1, in 2010 he was the only man to beat both Ramy and Matthew. However, in 2011 he hardly had any noticeable win (except maybe against James Willstrop to conclude the final for Egypt at the World Team Championships). He still beats mostly comfortably the lower ranked players (however not anymore always that terminator-like as beforehand), but he struggles with the equal ones. It might be due to the rather serious ankle injuries he has suffered in the last 18 months, he is not that balanced anymore on the stretch, not that lethal anymore in the front. The world's best forehand drop shot was working 10% less efficient as beforehand, and this is enough to lose that edge that made him so redoubtable in 2009-2010.
#6 AMR SHABANA: Like Darwish, Shabana went down this year. But not in the same way. Whilst Darwish has been very consistent (when not injured) Shabana was extremely fluctuating. He was off for personel reasons for almost 6 months, then came back and won nonchalantly the US Open, beating everybody, world #1 Nick Matthew included (never seen anybody taking a win of a major title that indifferently). Then again Shab lost interest, but still flew off to the events, just to see the young up-and-coming lads (Nicolas Mueller and Simon Rosner) beating him both times in half an hour. Nevertheless, it is still to his name that we can link probably the best match of the season. Shabana is a god, and we all now, gods are moody.
#7 PETER BARKER: Barker is not a god, but he gets, as wine, better with time. It has been pointed out that you can get in the top10 by being solid, but there is no way to make the top5 if you are not inventive, and don't owe a real short game. Barker has made a big step forward in this regard and we are very curious to see if he can finally not only push, but also beat the guys in front of him on a constant basis. It shouldn't be impossible, Barker disposes of such a harmonic footwork and fluid racket preparation when it comes to hit the basic shots, to adapt this to his short game is only a matter of liberating a mental barrage (through explicit short-game drills a few hours day-in day-out at training).
#8 MOHAMED EL SHORBAGY: two World Series semi-finals (including beating Darwish) at the end of the year indicate that he is now ready, really ready. I personally expect big things from him in 2012. From a certain point of view, he will substitute Darwish, he is less fleshy than Ramy or Shabana, but still capable of doing anything with the racket. On the top of it, just like Darwish, he's got the patience and is rock solid on the technical-physical front. An intriguing affair could be to see how he will deal with his younger brother, Marwan; the battle between the two brothers could make some headlines should the current world junior champion make it as well to the top10 (what only few would exclude by now I guess).
#9 DAVID PALMER: the great 'marine' has signed off in style: at the age of 35, he still finishes in the top10, even without playing the last few big events. He will be missed and not easily substituted. Such a dense blend of discipline and determination is damn tough to achieve I guess. As a good-bye present to the whole squash community he immortalised himself also with an exquisite shot, probably the shot of the century. Another great Australian player, Stewart Boswell also signed off just before the end of the year. Australian squash now will be eager to produce some new talents, as the sole representative in the top20 is Cameron Pilley, who, notwithstanding excelling in some aspects of the game, is not very likely to achieve anything close to these two greats.
#10 MOHD AZLAN ISKANDAR: to be honest, 2011 is not even Azlan's best season, notwithstanding reaching the top10 for the first time in his carrier. But he's been consistent, loosing rarely to lower ranked players. Azlan has always been a great talent - he had carrier wins against almost all the top-top players - but he probably is just not the character to take anything too seriously. To be world #10 without being super serious is pretty much an achievement. Now that he moved back to Malaysia, and managed to convince his coach Peter Genever to follow him there, will he be keen to raise his determination to his tactical and technical level?
In our next post we are going to have a look at the most promising players outside the top10. Of course feel free to add your comments or discuss our points.