By Richard Eaton
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
David Palmer wondered if he would ever cut it at the top level again after beginning a new phase in his life in Massachusetts. But he did, and more besides.
With an epic victory in the British Open final at Liverpool he underlined a case to be considered the finest player since the Khan era ended more than a decade ago.
Uprooting a wife and child from New South Wales to New England, and starting a demanding job as coach at the University club in Boston, is not ideal preparation for another big title tilt.
It required Palmer to cast aside self-doubt, to adopt a different philosophy, and to last 112 minutes of varied and relentless movement in the longest British Open final since 1997.
It also required him to frustrate a flint-willed comeback from James Willstrop that earned the Englishman the third and fourth games and took him menacingly to 9-6 in the fifth. The Australian then saved two match points before a 11-9, 11-9, 8-11, 6-11, 13-11 triumph gained his fourth title at the world’s oldest tournament.
Add to this his two World Open successes, and Palmer now has a significantly better record in high profile events than the two other greats of modern times—Jonathon Power of Canada and Peter Nicol of Britain.
“I came here just wanting to find out whether I could still compete at this level,” the 32-year-old said. “I’ve been used to working with my coach Shaun Moxham for ten years twice a day, and instead I’ve been having to figure things out for myself.”
Courage thus makes Palmer’s achievements memorable beyond statistics. One of the match points entailed two long rallies ending in lets and a third concluded by a desperate scramble in the top left corner. Often he was within an inch of losing.
Palmer also saved two match points in the 2002 World Open final in Antwerp against John White, and fully five in the 2006 World Open final against Greg Gaultier.
The Liverpool brinkmanship was, however, less difficult. That is because the real challenge, he reckoned, was not so much to maintain fitness, which remained okay, but to maintain his speed.
“It meant that I felt less nervous at 10-10 in the fifth and was able to relax and go for my shots,” he said.
Of course he also needed luck. His most fortunate moments were when Karim Darwish quit their semifinal not long after taking 19 out of 23 points and leading 8-1 in the third.
At that stage Palmer was beginning to panic, he later admitted, but it all changed three points later when Darwish was told to get treatment for a bleeding knee.
Oddly, only then did Darwish find he could no longer walk. He had damaged an Achilles, an appalling misfortune for the third best Egyptian who was poised for a breakthrough for which he had waited many years.
Darwish had earlier beaten Gaultier 11-9, 11-7, 11-3, causing the Frenchman to end his title defense in a fury, launching the last service return into the roof.
Palmer was also fortunate that Amr Shabana, who had expressed publicly his dissatisfaction with the tournament, especially the venue for the first two days—a 200-year-old cricket club with a well-worn ambience—was not in his best frame of mind.
This may have helped him overcome the World No. 1, 11-6, 3-11, 11-5, 11-8 in the quarterfinals, by which time the tournament had moved to a spectacular new $228 million stadium on the banks of the Mersey and right next to the Beatles museum.
Later Palmer addressed Shabana’s remarks in his winner’s speech. “There has been criticism but this feels like an old British Open again—great venues, great crowds,” he said.
Many people’s pre-tournament favorite, Ramy Ashour, suffered worse. He emerged for his second round with Mohammed Azlan Iskandar wearing Shakespearian white tights, was dramatically beaten 11-1, 5-11, 11-8, 11-8, and cast doubt on his future.
“I feel I am abusing my body,” he murmured through waves of emotion, referring to injuries to a foot and both hamstrings. “If I keep going like this, I won’t last two more years.”
One also wondered how long Rachael Grinham would remain at the top, for the defending champion lost disappointingly 9-5, 1-9, 9-7, 9-1 to Jenny Duncalf, the fifth seed from England.
Duncalf has a good array of shots but sometimes lacks the belief to string them together; that, though, may be remedied by this victory and subsequent progress to the final.
There Duncalf was beaten 9-1, 10-8, 9-0 by Nicol David who thus atoned for her loss to Grinham from match point up in last year’s final.
Now the World No. 1 from Malaysia was more assured. It was evident how she is trying to evolve her game by integrating more frequent volleys, more effective volley drops, and a more assertive attitude.
David also moved comfortably from carrying the Olympic torch down the road to the Petronas Towers to strolling down Penny Lane, made famous by the Beatles. The cultural contrasts, the climate changes, and the huge weight of Asian expectations, all are gradually being taken within a smoother stride.
Grinham was followed to the exit by her second-seeded sister Natalie, who retired with a thigh injury against Isabelle Stoehr of France. Another well-known name to depart early was Vanessa Atkinson.
The former world champion from The Netherlands was beaten by Shelley Kitchen, who then led David by a game and 7-4 against David before losing 7-9, 9-7, 9-5, 9-2. Despite this reversal of her great World Open result, Kitchen looked all of her imposing six feet two inches a player with top six potential.
Whilst welcoming the much-travelled Kiwi to the elite, we said goodbye to Mr Cosmopolitan. This was John White’s last Open, the Australia-raised, US domiciled, former World No. 1 from Scotland almost taking Shabana to five games before departing.
At 35 he still seemed brilliant enough to do well. But his family and his life in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are now more important. The attraction of America for overseas coaches continues to grow.