By Richard Eaton
Photos by Steve line/SquashPics.com
From the moment the car darted across the glittering Gulf, following a mighty wheel-tread across the sea and ignoring the waves as if they would be obeying the command of Allah, you sensed this might be a World Open like no other.
It was not just that sights and sounds surprised the emotions and gorged the senses. It was also that they seeped into the ambience of a tournament which brought tales of the unexpected like none before.
It was no wonder this was the richest in the history of squash, with a prize fund of $347,500. Not so surprising either was that Nick Matthew, from that nation made prosperous by seafarers and imperialists, should become the first Englishman ever to become world champion.
Not entirely surprising either was that three famous players, Ramy Ashour, Karim Darwish, and Gregory Gaultier, all of whom had scaled the pinnacle at some time, fell eerily to a similar premature end. It was as if they were affected by the same curse. According to Amr Shabana they had been.
Not surprising because this climax to an exhausting 2010 season was the creation of the most powerful friend squash has ever had. He is Ziad Al-Turki, the billionaire businessman whose cosmopolitan background enables him to stand astride the contradictions of the planet.
His is the educated accent, acquired from college days in the US, which talked of staging a World Open in Saudi Arabia despite inevitable restrictions in a country with state-backed religious and security services.
Ziad wanted squash to help change the world’s view of his little-visited homeland. Startlingly, his plans came to fruition just a week after Wikileaks allegations about Saudi Arabia harboring financiers of Al Qaeda—claims which made his PR project far more timely than even he might have imagined.
Ziad’s was the money that took squash players across the spectacular King Fahd causeway, the 1.2 billion dollars worth of miraculous engineering that plunges for 16 kilometres through Arabian waters.
His was the vision that took them through bleak grey soldier-manned frontier posts, which looked as though they might have been used for something other than civil encounters, to a hidden, time-forgotten paradise with a pastel sea and palm trees benignly waving in blissful temperatures.
Beyond the sinister barriers, where mirrors were inserted underneath every entering vehicle, was a cream-colored sports center with arched cloisters behind which the squash court stood, more than ever looking like a glass tardis arrived in a time-forgotten land.
And as Matthew held aloft the trophy which few until recently thought he had the skill win, so television showed images that few would have associated with so circumscribed a nation.
The key match was that in which Amr Shabana lost his title, beaten in straight games by Matthew in a semifinal that ensured locals would not see any of their Arab heroes contest the final.
The Egyptian has risen from popular to legendary status for winning four World Opens, a total which has been exceeded only by the two Pakistani greats, Jansher and Jahangir Khan. But Shabana could not match the movement of the well-trained Englishman or convert the crucial game balls he had at 10-9 in both the second and third game.
Shabana did play more of the inventive squash in a fine match with a fascinating contrast of styles, but was below the physical peak of his title-winning years—a vital factor in the 11-6, 12-10, 12-10 defeat. At the end he smashed his racket over his knee in frustration—though his was never a bad-tempered performance and his words were gracious.
Matthew’s court coverage was magnificent, and he used it as a base from which to create subtle changes of momentum and opponent-jerking options. Some of the volley drops, intercepting volleys, and body-leaning disguises have emerged in his repertoire just in the last couple of years.
They helped Matthew reach the final without dropping a game, and how vital that was. His tank was almost full, but the unlucky James Willstrop’s was depleted. Willstrop had held a match point against Matthew in the British Open final, had been too shattered to do challenge him in the Commonwealth Games final, and now was on the wrong end of the energy equation again in a major final against a rival he had faced since they were boys.
The men who did almost as much as Matthew to destroy Willstrop’s chances of becoming world champion were Daryl Selby and Peter Barker, two other English compatriots, who each produced performances that dragged him beyond the 80-minute mark in draining, four-game encounters.
Credit went to Willstrop, therefore, that in a 7-11, 11-6, 11-2, 11-3 defeat he induced doubt in the favorite’s mind for awhile, and then reached gallantly into the very bottom of his well of energy long after the outcome was no longer in doubt.
Willstrop’s first game performance was immaculate, full of clinging accuracy and dogged patience as well as perceptive selections in attack. Had he pushed on for a few points more at 5-5 in the second game, a sensation may have become possible. But he was already spent.
As the likely outcome was in sight well before the finish, Matthew found it impossible not to think about becoming world champion. “At that stage you are playing against yourself instead of your opponent,” he admitted. “You are sort of fighting demons in your head.
“You see the finish line, and as the score brings it closer your mind takes it further away because you are drifting. With every single thought I tried to tell myself ‘next rally, next rally’.”
Matthew’s triumph certainly owed something to good fortune, but so has that of other world champions. Four top 20 players, three of them serious contenders, were forced to retire, all with hamstring injuries.
The most unfortunate was Ramy Ashour’s in the second round. He lost one painful game to Pakistan’s Aamir Atlas Khan 11-2 and departed with such an expression so agonized it suggested he should never have played.
Ashour’s retirement cost the tournament its most charismatic player, the unofficial favorite for the title, and a local hero sponsored by ATCO, whose Vice Chairman is Al-Turki. “I’m very sad. I don’t know what to say,” he said, close to tears. “I felt it first in training back in Egypt a week ago.
“I was going to hospital every day, every day, and just hoped it would be all right when I got here. There was no way I was going to miss the World Open. But when I was here I felt it go again. It was no good, I couldn’t move.”
That day something similar happened to Adrian Grant, England’s world number 14, and three days later Greg Gaultier and Karim Darwish both suffered hamstring injuries too.
Gaultier’s helped Shabana back from the brink of likely quarterfinal defeat. The titleholder was three times within one blow of going two games down before Gaultier, face twisted with emotion, retired to give Shabana a victory by 6-11, 13-11, 4-0 retired.
It was particularly hard for the gifted Frenchman, who held five match points in the 2006 final, because he had one moment been on the verge of a commanding lead, the next enduring another World Open near miss.
As realization hit him, he sagged at the knees, placed his hand on his forehead, smashed his racket, and squatted in a crumpled heap—until Shabana hugged him, picked him up, and half-carried him out of the court.
Remarkably an hour later something similar happened to Darwish. The former World No. 1 from Egypt was one game all and even-steven in the third against Barker when his heel slipped as he lunged towards a back corner forcing him to perform the splits.
Darwish left the court less dramatically than Gaultier, but his drawn and anxious face told of another retirement. Soon he slipped away to shed his tears in private.
This brought words from Shabana. “Promoters should think about the players more and give them more rest,” he reckoned. “It’s a really tough sport physically and promoters don’t think about this problem enough,” he alleged.
“Ziad has it right,” Shabana added, referring to the World Open’s three rest days which were unique on the PSA Tour. “But this tournament has come at the end of the season, when players are vulnerable.
“Ziad has done it the right way. And John Nimick does it the right way,” Shabana added, referring to the promoter of the Tournament of Champions in New York.
“But other promoters make players compete too many days in a row and their bodies don’t have time to recover,” he alleged.
Soon one famous 34-year-old was saying “so long” and another “au revoir.” It was the David Palmer and Thierry Lincou retirement saga.
Palmer, the twice former World Open champion, lost in four games to Gaultier, and reckoned he might play a few more tournaments before calling it a day.
Lincou, the only Frenchman to have won the World Open, reached the quarterfinals before losing three straight to Matthew, and then delighting all those who know what a gent he is by saying he would try one more time.
Whether Al-Turki will try again with this particular enterprise seems more doubtful. His enthusiasm increasingly appeared greater for his role as PSA chairman and for the PSA World Series final in London the following month. He was nevertheless pleased with what television had shown the world of his country.
“When people think of Saudi, many of them don’t have an image of what’s here,” he said. “But just look at the pictures coming out of here—it’s a beautiful resort.
“It helps change what some people feel. It’s just another country, with people similar to everyone else in the world.
“Everyone is different. We may have our own cultures and our own beliefs. And yet we are all the same.”