30 December 2011


In our previous post we had a look how the top 10 has done in 2011. Now it's time to give some well deserved credit to the most impressive up-and-coming players of the year:

#20 TAREK MOMEN (born 1988, last year-end PSA ranking: 27): very few people discuss that the little man from Cairo is a genius. In 2006 as an 18 year old teenager he beats players of the calibre of Daryl Selby, in 2008 he beats then world #2 Gregory Gaultier (who hardly ever looses to anyone outside the top8), in 2009 he beats David Palmer (again, very few people can pretend that) and in the meantime he is frequenting the Faculty of Engineering at the University in Cairo!!! 2010 was poor for his standards (well, still, wins against Iskandar, Boswell, Mohamed El Shorbagy and Pilley!) but now he has concluded his studies and it starts to show. In Qatar he beat world #1 Nick Matthew 3:0, and Matthew admitted after the match that the result (11:9,12:10,11:8, 44m) was even flattering for him. Beating Matthew is a feat in itself, but let's add that next to Momen only Ramy Ashour has beaten Matthew 3:0 in the last few years. The only question mark is Tarek's determination. He has proven that on a one-day basis he can beat anybody. He is also probably the quickest man on the circuit with Miguel Angel Rodriguez; he's got the cheekiest backhand drop-shot on earth that he is capable of executing any time, anywhere. If you play short on his backhand side he'll counter-drop 8 times out of 10 and he'll still clear the ball each time (there are sooo many 'Lets' normally with other players in this situation...) But his concentration and determination can let him down at times. He's got something of a school lad, that makes him extra nice, but am not sure if that helps to become world #1, notwithstanding all the talent he's got to get there - even if he's the only pro player who basically omits the existence of the lob!

#21 TOM RICHARDS (born 1986, last year-end PSA ranking: 31): he might not be the kind of genius that Momen is, but he's showing constant improvements. This year he had very good wins over Laurens Jan Anjema, Hisham Ashour (twice), Ong Beng Hee and Tarek Momen, even if the last two have then avenged the loss. Someone as terminator-solid as Darwish (even though on slight decline now) still beats him 3,4 and 6 in 37 minutes. But I see him humble, and humbleness is one of the best secret weapons in long term.

#23 NICOLAS MUELLER (born 1989, last year-end PSA ranking: 37): he has shown qualities from the very first moment he stepped on court on the pro tour. This year has demonstrated also that he has serious intentions, not only style- and technique-wise, but also ranking-wise, he definitely wants to be in the top5 in the future. This year he's got the scalps of Adrian Grant (twice), Borja Golan, Iskandar and most eminently of all: Amr Shabana (even if we know Shabs is lacking inspiration in last few months). He's shown also some exceptional squash against some other greats even if he ended up losing: first game 11:2 in 5 minutes in Qatar against Darwish!? Anyone ever heard anything similar? He also gave a good run of four games to James Willstrop, who hardly lost any other game in his last 15 other matches of the year.

#24 SIMON ROSNER (born 1987, last year-end PSA ranking: 33): a few years back, Rosner looked really bad. Strange technique, no results. He now looks good, really good. It's still not textbook technique (that ultra high elbow at his backswing, funnily only him - the tallest guy - and Aamir Atlas Khan - the smallest guy on the tour - employ this technique that does not favour deception. But he still kills the ball second to none in the front and shows also delicate touch notwithstanding appearance; he's got really quick feet and very good movement for someone as tall as him; and he's not afraid of anybody. He's beaten Adrian Grant, Aamir Atlas Khan, he's had matchball against Karim Darwish in Sweden (okay, Karim coming back from serious injury, but still!), brought Ramy to 5 quality games in Paderborn and got his heart-warming share of win against Shabana (in similar fashion as Mueller, but still!) He is also keen, and when a German is keen, well, anything can happen.

#33 ALAN CLYNE (born 1986, last year-end PSA ranking: 51): some of you might be surprised that I include him in the list, but I think he deserves to be mentioned based on this year's performance, even if he has had a bad end of year with four first round losses at the last four main events (still gave David Palmer a good 5 game run in Rotterdam). But beforehand he was impressing with his mixture of strange technique, huge stamina and a great heart. He might be not the most beautiful to watch, but he is efficient and a tough nut to crack. Ask Hisham Ashour or the promising young Egyptian Karim Abdel Gawad who both have twice as many shots in the pocket but still lost to him.

#45 MARWAN EL SHORBAGY (born 1993, last year-end PSA ranking: 174): Ramy-like stellar rise, almost 130 places within one year with the scalps of Daryl Selby and Omar Mosaad (both top20 and not friendly at all when it comes to battle...). Marwan is junior world champion and obviously extreamly promising: we know his pedigree with his older (still very young) brother already in the top10 and excellent coaching background by Jonah Barrington around Bristol/UK alternated with training camps in Cairo. Some say technically he's got even more potential than his brother. To be seen remains if he's also as tough and determined as Mohamed. Anyway, if the Ashour brother's don't make both the top10 within one family (due to Hisham not being capable of making a regime longer than five weeks;) then the Shorbagy brothers could well fulfil this highly respectable and funny historical feat.

27 December 2011


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. 

21 December 2011


Graham Ryding is not an all-time great, but still a former top-ten player and sparing partner of all-time-great Jonathon Power. For us he is a very interesting example, as technically very sound, even virtuoso with the ankle (watch those behind-the-body defensive shots at 0:06, 0:08 and 0:10), however he had the problem typical of racket-wise very talented players: they don't always chose the right (probably more boring) shot instead of the funky one and go for conclusion when constructivism would be more appropriate. In this rally he did so many things right, except the very last decision; he turned defence into offence first at 0:20 with a good hidden cross-court flick followed by a greatly held and ponded almost-dying straight drive at 0:23 and a good volley-drop at 0:26; another extreme wrist flick at 0:33 made his opponent Anthony Ricketts run even more, then at 0:37 he plays a wise long drop shot faded into the mid-court sidewall, but after a tight exchange of a few counter-drops he goes in the wrong moment for another flick with the wrist, and notwithstanding he tried to deceive by turning his head towards the cross-court, Ricketts easily intercepted the straight pass that lacked tightness, pace and/or heights. In fact, this rally terribly resembles another one where Ryding played David Palmer and where he lost the point in the same corner in a very similar fashion

19 December 2011


Time goes by, and even though some champions are still there with their body, they are not really present anymore with their heart. Whilst I had the feeling that David Palmer was, and Thierry Lincou still is giving their all on the court, Amr Shabana looked this year somewhat half-hearted, a bit even at the US Open where he nevertheless beat everybody, Nick Matthew, the world #1 included. If you watch this rally against Ramy Ashour from 2007, you see a Shabana bouncing like a ball, split-stepping like thunder and even arguing passionately to receive a 'Stroke'. He was a lot less energetic most of 2011, and mostly the last few tournaments. I know, at this stage of your carrier, you must have a few redundant pains/injuries that make life not easier (this might be also Karim Darwish's case, another Egyptian monster on noticeable decline this year). Concerning the below rally: beyond creativity and energy, the other key word is sportsmanship; first Ramy playing a great cross volley instead of stopping for a 'Stroke' at 0:32, then the friendly handshake between the two after the 'Let' decision even though Shabana was after a 'Stroke' - I think even rightly, as Ramy's shot was pretty loose at that stage, but the referee might have considered Ramy's fair-play attitude at 0:32, where Shabana's ball was probably even more loose. If you consider only the shot, it could have been a 'Stroke', but I think it's the right refereeing philosophy taking into account the whole rally/game when deciding about borderline situations. Anyway, Shabana, after having skipped the Punj Lloyd PSA Masters last week, could still come back strong in London in a few weaks at the ATCO PSA World Series Finals, he seemed to enjoy himself there very much last year, probably also due to the shorter best-of-three games structure.

17 December 2011


At the current 2011 Punj Lloyd Open, Ramy Ashour made another failed comeback from his hamstring injury. He seemed to dominate Peter Barker when suddenly a wrong step made the injury reappear. On top of that, as a really bad habit, Ramy kept on playing instead of withdrawing, risking therefore further damage. On one side the heart breaks to see probably the most intriguing player of all times willing and struggling to play, but on the other hand one might also wonder how come he is not capable of judging realistically the state/degree of his recovery process. Anyway, the great thing about Ramy is that beyond being the most spectacular player of all times, he is also such a lovely dude outside the court. We had recently the example of the coffee cup, or further back his singings, and now the fun impressions and emotions around a simple present of a children's chocolate. Great little 'bagatelle' footage, thanks to the I-love-squash team and the German organizers of the 2011 World Team Championships in Paderborn.

14 December 2011


2012 will be a big year for Squash in London. Canary Wharf Classic in March, British Open in May (yes, in the O2 arena!) and most closely the ATCO World Series Finals between 4-8 January 2012 at the historical Queens Club. Last year's event was probably the best ever set up squash tournament in terms of event management, court/colours/lighting settings. Unfortunately the tent that hosted the event lost pressure just the night before the finals should have been played between Nick Matthew and Amr Shabana (shown here below at one of their recent battles at the ROWE British Grand Prix 2011). The good news are: there will be no tent this year, however the great dark/pink court/colour/lighting settings will be maintained, if not even further improved. The eight best male players (those who gathered the most points in the World Series events throughout 2011) will be playing in a best-of-three games format (instead of the traditional best-of-five). This format encourages attacking squash, and combined with the both cool and dramatic visual settings, players seemed to be very inspired last year to go for some extra solutions. On top of all, this year will be a combined men's and women's event with the eight best women players joining the show. For further information visit the official World Series Website, or buy your tickets with ticketmaster.co.uk.

08 December 2011


Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew can produce some heavy metal squash as we could see it in earlier examples. But there is no way to be the best players in the world if you are not good in mixing it up; squash is not a straight line but a streaming thing. In this rally the most outstanding tactical element is obviously the lob. Not necessarily the one that you play in the front out of necessity, but rather the one from mid- or back-court, chosing it instead of a drive. Observe the one at 0:16, Ramy's length was very good, hence the most common solution would have been to reply with a tight drive, but Matthew chose to make an ultra high cross-court lob that almost stuck in the backwall nick and created him a great opening. Then at 0:28, a Ramy special, the cross-court volley lob instead of the more conventional straight long volley. And again, it forced an opening as Matthew could only keep the rally going with a high loose boast. The good thing in the lob is that it is a low percentage shot, even if it is not perfect, you at least gain time to get back to the 'T' without rush (of course if you completely fail it it gives a total opening to your opponent, but that's true for every type of shot). Another note can be made on Matthew's drop shots at 0:21 and 1:00. He went in both cases for the low-risk version by playing them high over the tin, faded into the sidewall. Being the most skillful player in the world, Ramy managed to scrap them off decently, but if you hit them as accurately as Nick did, your opponent will rather end up hitting the ball back to himself or, on lower club levels, even break his racket ;) If I were James Willstrop's coach, I would show him every morning this rally in order to demonstrate how to try to play against Nick. You don't beat Nick Matthew with heavy metal squash, do you?  

05 December 2011


I had the pleasure last week to meet some young up-and-coming Egyptian players at the 2011 London Open. To be precise, four of them. Farah Abdel Meguid (19 years of age, world #65) who finished runner up in the ladies event, Karim Abdel Gawad (20, #44) who made the semi finals, Andrew Wagih Shoukry (21, #74) quarter finalist and Mohamed Abouelghar (18, #84), the runner-up to Marwan El Shorbagy at the last Junior World Championships. I had a few pleasant chats with them about how the pro squash scene is structured in Cairo; I might probably write about it more in detail in the near future, but if you want just a quick and very expressive picture of the Egyptian way of living and playing squash, just watch the below video. Watch the little chap who plays soccer with the squash ball; watch Ramy Ashour in jeans, hitting a corkscrew lob and making sure that the ball - after hitting five different planes of the space -  ends in a coffee cup outside the court; watch the smiles and listen to the joyful, Mediterranean noises in and around the court. This is one of the secrets of Egypt's squash: world #1 and world #120, the seasoned pro and the 8 year old chap, all together in one place, working and having fun day in, day out. Last note: after having shown this clip to my wife, she suggested Ramy could switch to golf, he could easily become a millionaire...

01 December 2011


James Willstrop has won 2 World Series events in a row, first in Hong Kong then in Kuwait. In those 10 matches he's lost one only game in a tie-break to Karim Darwish in the Kuwait final (Darwish was the opponent also in the Hong Kong final). Both times, Willstrop beat convincingly a form-and-confindence regaining Gregory Gaultier in the semi-finals. In Hong Kong one could have thought that Gaultier had too heavy legs from his 90 minute quarter final match against Nick Matthew, but in Kuwait it was just clear that on such a cold court James is the better player (as I think on a hot court Greg is the stronger one). Willstrop's deaf touch is second to none and this coupled with the right discipline of steadiness (accurate length and width) and patience (right shot-selection) makes him almost impossible to beat when Ramy is not around on such a cold court as the one in Kuwait. I even presume that for the first time after uncountable beatings, in Kuwait, Willstrop could have fancied good chances against his nemesis Nick Matthew. Now that Nick has awful lot of points to save from last December, the battle for the year-end #1 spot will be decided in India, at the Punj Lloyd Masters in warmer conditions. The below rally demonstrates perfectly why Nick is such hard nut to crack for Willstrop, and even more so on hot courts. Let's consider also that for Matthew, this is just a normal rally, if required, he can go on like this for 90 minutes, whereas Willstrop can't cope with him in this rhythm for five games, at least he hasn't been capable to demonstrate the opposite in the last two-three years. This is an awesome rally, even if I think that at the winning volley drop Nick has blocked James in the same way as Ramy has blocked Nick in another famous rally in a very similar situation. Apparently the refs consider that the previous shot in both cases was loose, but I still think that this does not justify to clear into the genuine path of your opponent.