By Richard Eaton
Photos by Steve Line/Squashpics.com
Tommy Berden and Natalie Grinham are more than the most famous husband and wife team in the sport. They are aiming for achievements at the World Open in Rotterdam which no-one has attempted before.
Berden is organizing the richest world championship there has ever been, with hopes of making it the most successful; Grinham is trying to become the first mother to have been a title contender.
The astute and affable Dutchman and the tensely ambitious former Australian are unique, because if they succeed each will shift frontiers in the mind and help squash move towards a new era.
At a strategically very important time, Berden can demonstrate that squash is able to stage showpiece events fit for an Olympic future. And Natalie may show to multi-tasking mothers that they can find fulfillment in squash despite its fierce physical demands.
There are other reasons why expectations are higher than ever for this World Open. It is only the third to combine men’s and women’s events, the $400,000 prize fund is a record, and the venue, the New Luxor by the river Meuse, has an accolade as The Netherlands’ most beautiful theater.
Standing at the foot of the Erasmus bridge, its architecture has decks and prows that reflect a nautical history, and it is wrapped in color-coordinated reds that add to the building’s evening glow.
Inside there is an intricate system of grand foyers, wide staircases and look-through vistas which lead you on, only for the roof terrace to make you halt and look at its panoramic view of the city.
“We have found an equivalent of spectacular venues like Grand Central terminal in New York or Canary Wharf in London,” claims Berden. “The Luxor has all the facilities and comfort we need to provide players and visitors with an incredible experience.”
That is much for a squash tournament to live up to. Berden’s achievement in staging an excellent women’s World Open in Amsterdam two years ago suggests that he is capable of ensuring that happens.
Grinham, on the other hand, at 33 and with a 17-month-old son, has a harder task than when she reached the Amsterdam final and, for 25 remarkable minutes, appeared as though she might become a sensational world champion.
She also has a harder scenario than Kim Clijsters’ before she won the US Open tennis title as a mother. The Belgian star’s triumph has, however, offered insights into how to cope with the intricate problems of combining both roles.
More of this in a moment. First, there are other reasons why this World Open is unusual. An edge may have been injected into the men’s event by the Egyptian head coach Amir Wagih, who has predicted, among other things, that England is about to lose its status as a squash powerhouse. “They are all around 30 and in two or three years won’t be there at the top,” Wagih said of England’s leading players. He then added that “they are dreaming in their system.
“We learnt from other countries,” he went on. “Now, if you want to develop you have to take experience from the top, like taking qualities from Egyptian squash.
“I think the future is Egypt, USA, and India. Countries like Pakistan, Australia and England have gone backwards. They don’t take from our experiences—and think they are still great.”
Whatever the truth of this, Wagih has risked making his leading players’ task harder. Those three nations, and particularly England, may well be spurred by his words.
Neither Matthew, the defending world champion who is aged 31, nor James Willstrop, last year’s runner-up, aged 28, feel they are going backwards just yet. They did, though, suffer badly at the hands of the Egyptians in August, at the world team finals at Paderborn.
There Matthew was beaten in straight games for the first time by Ramy Ashour, by far his most dangerous rival. “So far this season, Ramy is playing the best squash— but a lot can change,” the Yorkshireman commented rather ominously.
Matthew’s loss was followed by Willstrop’s, who was beaten for the first time in five years by Karim Darwish, the former World No. 1. “It was very hard to take,” Willstrop admitted. “But after a while you realize you must deal with it, which is what I’ll do.”
Matthew sometimes shows quite dramatically how he dislikes losing. So much did he this time that Ashour described the match as “like being in a UFC bout.” The former world champion from Egypt is probably the unofficial favorite to win the title back, as well as a sentimental favorite for some after his misfortunes at the 2010 World Open in Saudi Arabia.
Clearly not fit enough to last the week, Ashour tried to compete for a couple of rounds to help promote the tournament, before ending hobbling and in tears. Injury also prevented Darwish finishing the tournament, and both Egyptians have vowed to arrive at Rotterdam in better shape.
Whether their compatriot Amr Shabana, the four times former champion, can do likewise, is a familiar and important question. The physical adequacy of one of the greatest of many great Egyptians players has been in doubt for a year too. Moreover, opportunities of gauging it in 2011 have been limited.
Meanwhile, if Wagih’s words were contentious, then a few of Jahangir Khan’s recently have been even more so. The Pakistani legend is usually a mild man, and as the WSF’s past President a very diplomatic one. But the failing efforts of his compatriots triggered a critical passion within him.
“I think all those who are running the game in the country (Pakistan) are not competent, and professionals should come and build a proper set-up,” Jahangir asserted. He then alleged that all those running the game in Pakistan “should leave their posts, because they lack sincerity and planning.”
It is fully 23 years since Jahangir captured the last of his six world titles, and 15 years since Jansher Khan won the last of his eight. It is almost as long since Pakistan, the country that has made such a mighty contribution to the sport, has had a significant contender.
They will hope, as for a while now, to take some pride in the efforts of Aamir Atlas Khan and Farhan Mehboob, both once ranked in the top 20 but, at the time of writing, slipping down the 20’s and 30’s. A last 16 place may be the best they can wish for.
Can the Australians make for a revival? Also doubtful. The twice former world champion, David Palmer, still plays very well, but is now 35 and competes less than he did, while Stewart Boswell and Cameron Pilley, good players both, have been around for a while and no longer seem likely to challenge the leading group.
This group still includes the two stylish and entertaining Frenchmen. They are Gregory Gaultier, the versatile and temperamental former World No. 1, who possibly still remains capable of winning the World Open, and Thierry Lincou, the oldest man in the professional game at 35, who is still a top tenner and still capable of causing trouble.
All these contenders mean that the eventual champion could have three very testing matches before holding up the trophy. The women’s champion, by contrast, may destroy the opposition utterly.
That is certainly what Nicol David did on a spectacular open air court alongside the Red Sea and within sight of the Sinai mountain range at Sharm El Sheikh a year ago, and she may be able to repeat it as she seeks a record sixth World Open title.
However, there seems to be another player capable of upsetting David, who slipped to surprising defeats against Laura Massaro, the improving English player, at Cleveland and in Singapore this year. It is the first time David has had anything approaching a rival since Natalie Grinham became a mother almost 18 months ago.
Nevertheless, the Malaysian remains the highest profile woman squash player there has ever been, and almost as strong a favorite as ever. She will have to be well below par not to triumph again in a country where she feels comfortable and which, for five years, has been her adopted home.
If anyone were to get lucky, it is likely to be one of three English women—Massaro, Jenny Duncalf, and Alison Waters, or perhaps one of the 34-year-olds, Rachael Grinham of Australia, or Madeline Perry of Ireland. Or it might just be the rising Kasey Brown, the Australian champion who recently rose to a career-high number six.
Is Amanda Sobhy ready to justify Wagih’s prediction about the USA? Perhaps not quite, but the 18-year-old New Yorker may now be good enough to achieve her first main draw victories in a World Open.
Though Sobhy lost her world junior title at Boston this year, it must be more important in the long run to have overcome Natalie Grinham at the Greenwich Open and Kasey Brown at the Cleveland Classic, and to have reached the world’s top-20 for the first time. Those wins enhance the vision of what is possible in Rotterdam.
Her progress will be keenly observed, as will that of the two Egyptian prodigies, the 18-year-old Nour El Tayeb, and—if she makes the main draw—the 15-year-old Nour El Sherbini.
Amidst the accelerating advance of these youngsters, can the comeback mum make progress? Natalie Grinham may not have quite rejoined the leading group, but she refuses, perhaps wisely, to believe that will remain so.
She has gradually gained in physical strength since the birth of her son Kieran in April last year. And she is well aware that medical evidence suggests that after giving birth, women have physical advantages.
Hormones are released that make mothers stronger and more resilient, and they are often emotionally more settled too. “But it can take a while,” Grinham said. “Kim Clijsters had two years before she came back. But mothers are often better, provided they organize their lives carefully, as she did.
“I’m not exactly the youngest person on the tour, and reaching the World No. 1 spot happens over a 12-month period, so that’s not my goal,” she emphasized. “The goal is the World Open.”
Grinham’s first comeback title happened after seven tournaments, at the Atwater Cup in Montreal in April, with a good win over Joelle King of New Zealand in the final.
Since then she has reduced her weight to within a kilo of her lightest, recovered much of her graceful mobility, and made her game more resilient. But she may never regain the capacity for prolonged high speed rallies of five years ago when she played a fierce five-game World Open final against David in Belfast.
Did all this mean less pressure on her in Rotterdam than in Amsterdam? “Not really.” The reply of the adopted Dutch international came a little sharply—perhaps thinking of the need to help promote her husband’s brain-child.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to do well here. It’s going to be different, but I have been in good shape already this year. And if I improve a little bit, I should do well.”
Bet that she will. Bet that both of them will.