By Jay D. Prince
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
New York: Tuesday, February 27, 2007. Eight-thirty in the evening. Just the end of a typical rat race day in Manhattan. Tens of thousands of daily commuters have hustled in and out of Grand Central Terminal, most glancing quickly at the glass box that has become an annual fixture in Vanderbilt Hall just off 42nd Street, while growing numbers of would be passers by stop to join the burgeoning throng of standing-room-only spectators outside the front wall of the McWil portable squash court.
In this, the 10th Anniversary visit of the Bear Stearns Tournament of Champions in the fabled train hub, the loyal squash fans would be forgiven for wondering what to expect from the players. After all, just 12 months earlier, fan favorites and perennial powerhouses Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power called it quits. The Borg and McEnroe of squash had left the game, and they took with them the eagerly awaited clash between polar opposites in terms of on court demeanor and playing style. Nicol, the calm, collected and methodical tactician versus the mercurial Power with his golden hands and matador-like short game. Regardless of their position in the draw, ticket buyers pinpointed that potential match as the one to watch.
How quickly we can forget. The shadow of Nicol and Power hung over the nightly crowds throughout the first 25 matches of the TOC. Sure, there were some interesting matches—particularly the one featuring American Julian Illingworth who turned more than a few heads in his first round match with Dan Jenson (more on that on P. 25)—but nothing that grabbed the crowd by their collective throats. Until James Willstrop and Ramy Ashour took the court—at 8:30 p.m., on Tuesday the 27th. The next hour saw the coming of age of the next generation of professional squash players.
Forehand drop, re-drop, re-drop, cross-court drop, straight drive, boast, drop, lob (that is cut off three feet in front of the T), overhead forehand smash to the cross-court nick, that is easily swallowed up with a backhand re-drop, cross-court drop, forehand drive…that is volleyed (again in front of the T) into a rolling cross-court nick. No, that’s not a sampling of the repertoire of these young guns. That was one point. Breakneck speed, deft touch, awesome power, creative flair, and shear determination. On every single point.
Heart rates measured at over 140 (among the spectators; make that fans) accurately describes the energy coming out of the court on this wondrous evening. Whoever said squash is a marathon never anticipated one being run at a full sprint for 57 minutes. Forget the two-hour plus stuff. Willstrop and Ashour were like watching Carl Lewis run the 100 meters every point for the full 26.2 miles, all while lunging, jumping, twisting and leaping through the air.
For purists of the sport, Willstrop and Ashour broke all of the rules. Instead of shot after shot down the wall to increasingly perfect length with each ball hugging the side wall, these two broke the mold and fired at will. On occasion each would take a two-stroke breather by resorting to fundamentals, but patience was not a virtue in this quarterfinal. And the fans ate it up. The gasps and midpoint reflexive but premature applause, thinking the miraculous shot just played would surely win the point, was spontaneous and energetic. The seats got just as much of a workout as the players with all the wiggling around going on. If anyone was sitting still, they had to be dead.
By the end of the first game, won by Ashour 11-9, Willstrop looked like he’d just walked out of the shower while Ashour had nary a bead of sweat on his brow. But if Ashour thought he’d broken Willstrop’s spirit, Willstrop quickly reminded the two-time World Junior Champion that he too had climbed that mountain and he’d been playing on the PSA tour for over four years. The experience, along with his flick, flick, flick drop and flick, flick, drive, came out of the bag in the second game and Willstrop cruised to take it 11-5. By the way, that flick, flick, flick? Picture swing (miss), swing (miss), swing (miss)…and then hit the ball. It’s one of those things that should come with a warning not to try this at home.
The third and fourth games went to Ashour 11-6, but the entertainment factor was ratcheted up yet another notch. Willstrop and Ashour were two kids in a candy store making things up as they went along. Volleying returns of overheads, or floating cross-court drops within inches of the front wall, or putting on a show while warming up a new ball after the first one finally called it quits (Ashour finished it off with a behind the back cross-court drive into the nick at the front court). Even the other players had to take a peek.
Afterwards, Ashour celebrated by jumping up and down beneath the bleachers and yelling to his brother Hisham, “I did it! I did it! I did it! I won!” And then he leaped into his brother’s arms. Willstrop, on the other hand, simply leaned his 6’ 5” frame against one of the cross beams of the same bleachers, staring blankly. Though disappointed, he did admit, “That was a lot of fun. He (Ashour) is a great player. It’s the first time we’ve played, and hopefully we’ll play many more times.”
The following night, after a much-needed 24 hours to recover, the fans returned to see Finland’s Olli Tuominen body check his way into the semis by playing a physical brand of squash designed to distract Australia’s David Palmer. With hip checks, pushing and shoving by both combatants, Tuominen outlasted Palmer in four contentious games. Meanwhile, Australia’s Anthony Ricketts took out former World No. 1 Frenchman Thierry Lincou in a relatively easy three game affair.
On Thursday, Ashour was back on court in the semis to take on countryman and World No. 1 Amr Shabana. Student versus teacher, and the crowd still buzzing over Ashour’s display two nights earlier. Would this be the day Ashour teaches his elder something new? No. Plain and simple.
Shabana is lightning in a glass box with blinding speed. Reminiscent of Dash in “The Incredibles” (if you saw the movie, you understand), Shabana somehow went from corner to corner without being seen. At one point, he dove to the back right, dove to the front left, then scrambled to the back right to crush a winner that left Ashour shrugging his shoulders. Though Ashour is the most exciting thing seen on tour in years, Shabana drove home the point that the 19-year-old will have to develop his ability to play patiently along the walls before pouncing on every ball that he can get his racquet on. Because Ashour tends to play loose shots, Shabana capitalized on every one of them and cruised to an easy three game ticket to the finals.
On the other side, Ricketts put on a display of slowball that drew oohs and ahhs with ball after ball coming painfully close to the out line on the left wall. Afterwards, Ricketts admitted (though off the record at the time) that he’d had to resort to such a tactic because his elbow was in so much pain from an injury suffered earlier in the week, he couldn’t hit the ball hard. And he never did. Not once. And Tuominen, who prefers a fast-paced hard-hitting game never had a chance.
Unfortunately for those in attendance at the finals, Ricketts was forced to retire midway through the third game because of the intense pain in his elbow, handing Shabana his second Tournament of Champions title. Ricketts, who said, “I’ve never had to quit before. And I don’t like it,” apologized for having to stop in his post-match comments to the disappointed crowd.
Regardless of who took the Championship, the quarterfinal duel on that Tuesday evening will remain with everyone who witnessed it forever. Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop showed us just how much fun this game can be. Bottle that one match up and put it in front of kids across the country, and you might see squash on TV and tens of thousands of juniors taking up the game just to try one of those crazy shots that Ashour and Willstrop displayed on every point. Ask someone who was there, but don’t be surprised if what you get is an ear-to-ear grin and a sighing, “Oh, it was unbelievable! You shoulda been there.”
American Julian Illingworth borrowed the spotlight from Ashour and Willstrop during his midday shocker over Australian Dan Jenson in the first round.
Illingworth, first put his stamp on professional squash by becoming the only American to ever qualify for a major PSA event, which he did twice prior to the TOC by qualifying for the Pace Canadian Classic in Toronto and the Windy City Open in Chicago. In New York—where he did not qualify—he took things one step further. After losing a tough qualifying final to England’s Stacey Ross, Illingworth found his way into the main draw when Laurens Jan Anjema was forced to withdraw due to injury. To replace Anjema, the qualifying losers were put into a hat, and Illingworth was drawn as the “Lucky Loser.”
With borrowed equipment—because he’d left his racquets at another club and broke the strings in the only one he had during this match—Illingworth quickly found himself down two games to Jenson who in 1999 was ranked as high as World No. 5. But with his superior fitness, Illingworth dragged the match out, and with it Jenson. Illingworth escaped the third 11-9, took the fourth 11-5, and then went toe-to-toe with Jenson in the fifth.
It took two match balls, but Illingworth finally bagged his first main draw win with a dramatic 11-10 fifth game that went to 6-4 in the tiebreaker (at 10-all, play continues until one player is clear by two points). Despite the daunting task of facing World No. 2 David Palmer in the second round, a match that Palmer won handily in three games, Illingworth put everyone on notice that he will be no pushover.
And adding to the American flavor in this year’s TOC, Chris Gordon—who was given a wildcard into the draw—extended Spain’s World No. 20, Borja Golan, to four games in the first round. Gordon, playing his usual patient game, threw in just enough attacking drop shots to take the first game 11-10 (3-1 in the tiebreaker) before succumbing in the next three 6, 9, 7.
Finally, Natalie Grainger, who had just been sworn in as a US citizen two weeks earlier, steamrolled Vanessa Atkinson in a mere 36 minutes to take the Women’s four-player Challenge Cup. Though she dropped the first game, Grainger took control with relentless pace and pressure midway through the second and never looked back.