By Phil Yarrowl
Photos by Debra Tessier
Amr Shabana showed why he is World No. 1 with some breathtaking squash to capture the 2007 Infor Windy City Open title in late January. The University Club of Chicago’s Cathedral Hall made for a perfect setting for the event, which once again was the richest PSA event in North America, with an $80,000 prize fund.
In the final, Shabana overcame Australian Anthony Ricketts in three tightly contested games. Ricketts battled hard, but the Egyptian was simply too good. The first was neck and neck until 8-8, but suddenly three quick winners, and the game belonged to Shabana. He took an early 4-0 lead in the second as well, but Ricketts hung in and brought himself back to level terms. Shabana reverted to a steadier, more patient game. He drove the ball to fabulous length and then punished Ricketts with beautiful drops at the front. The tough Australian scrapped for every point and was still in it at 8-9, but two fine cross-court drops later, and it was 2-0 Shabana.
The intensity level ratcheted up significantly in the third game. Ricketts led 5-0, before Shabana came back with his own run to take a 7-5 lead. Ricketts gave it one final push and five points later held game ball at 10-7, but he could not convert as two strokes and one tin brought them to a tiebreaker. And what a tiebreaker it turned out to be. Both players attacked relentlessly. Shabana saved two more game balls and Ricketts saved a match ball. Tied at 13-13, the noise makers that had been issued to the crowd were in full force. Shabana won the next rally to gain his second match ball, and this time he made no mistake as a sliced backhand drop forced a tin from Ricketts, resulting in Shabana’s first Windy City Open title.
The first round of the tournament presented some entertaining squash, but no surprises. The match that came closest to an upset was when Mark Heather—the University Club’s Head Squash Pro—gave World No. 10 John White about as much as he could handle. To the delight of the local crowd, Heather won the first game and pushed the 2005 Windy City Open Champion hard in the second and third. But losing the third game tiebreaker was a blow to the Englishman, and White ran out a comfortable winner in the fourth to escape into the next round. The hard-hitting Scot was clearly surprised at the battle he had found himself in, and admitted afterward that he had seriously contemplated the prospect of defeat as he struggled to gain the upper hand in the middle of the match.
On the Saturday morning before the start of the second round, the players and tournament organizer, John Flanigan, met and agreed to adopt an experimental three-referee system. It proved to be a huge success. The main referee and two side referees each gave a decision on every call, and the majority ruled the day. It made it much harder for the players to argue, yet there was still enough rapport between the players and the main referee to keep things interesting. The referees seemed more relaxed and most players and observers agreed they got virtually every decision correct!
All the seeds safely advanced to the quarterfinals, but seventh seed James Willstrop had a tough time overcoming Egyptian Mohammed Abbas in five highly entertaining games. Not what the Englishman needed, considering he was first on court the next day in the quarterfinals against No. 1 seed Shabana. It did not stop Willstrop from playing what he described as some of the highest quality squash of his life. But even that was not enough. The 23-year-old from Yorkshire won the first on a tiebreaker after blowing leads of 9-2 and 10-6. The second and third games were nail-biters as well. Willstrop was right in the thick of it at 9-9 in both games, but Shabana saved his magic for the end and each time came up with two quick winners to take both games and a 2-1 lead. The Englishman stuck with it in the fourth, but he was visibly tired and probably a touch frustrated at being behind when he was playing so well. Thus Shabana was able to win the game 11-7 to close out the match.
A big crowd remained on hand despite the fact that the Chicago Bears were playing for the NFC Championship at the same time. They were well rewarded for the decision to forego watching football, as the second quarterfinal turned out to be the match of the tournament. It featured White and the in-form Frenchman, Gregory Gaultier. Gaultier took the first game 11-9, but then White really turned it on. With a mix of power and touch, he caused Gaultier all sorts of problems. The World No. 3 was rattled and in deep trouble at two games to one down, but Gaultier settled his emotions—which were running a bit high—and turned the tables on White to take control of the fourth and fifth. He took the fourth 11-6 and advanced to 10-6 in the decider. The experienced White would not be denied though. He mounted a steady comeback winning the next five points to hold match ball himself. Gaultier saved that one but not the next, as White proved that on his day, he can still take on and beat the best.
The last two quarterfinals saw two additional higher seeds fall, as 19-year-old Ramy Ashour defeated Thierry Lincou in three, and Ricketts easily beat compatriot David Palmer. Ashour was seeking his fourth win in three months against Ricketts when the two faced off in the first semifinal the next evening. But Ricketts came out flying and seemed to catch the Egyptian off guard. Ricketts won the first two games before Ashour finally seemed to wake from his daze. The third was a fabulous game and it looked like Ricketts was really starting to suffer. Ashour took the game, and the crowd waited in anticipation for a five-game thriller. But Ricketts had other ideas, and in the fourth got back on top and raced to a 10-2 advantage. Slowly Ashour fought back. The crowd loved it, but the Australian was clearly growing more and more anxious as he struggled to win that last point. Finally, to Ricketts’ relief, at 8-10 the young Egyptian clipped the tin and the Australian advanced to the final.
In the second semifinal, White had little left in the tank to challenge Shabana. It looked more like an exhibition match as the Egyptian comfortably moved onto the final. It was revenge for Shabana, who on the same court two years ago, was beaten by White in the final of the same event. This year the Egyptian was determined to go one step better.