Story and Photos by Jay D. Prince
Sited just across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building in beautiful San Francisco (CA), the $70,000 Net- Suite Open Squash Championships played to sold-out crowds for five chilly nights—and one close-call with heavy rain. Weathering the elements was France’s Gregory Gaultier who ran away with the championship.
Ten days after falling in the final of the Delaware Investments US Open, Gaultier turned the outdoor stage into his personal theater by dispatching both Egyptian Amr Shabana and England’s Nick Matthew in three games on back to back nights.
“That’s probably the best I’ve ever played when losing 3-0!” That was how Matthew summed it up. And he’s probably right. Gaultier was simply unstoppable in the final, putting his astounding quickness and relentless attacking style to full effect. From the start, Gaultier owned the left wall. More specifically, he owned the back left corner where ball after ball found the full depth of the court.
Gaultier never looked back once referee Mike Riley said, “Love all”—racing out to 6-2 and 7-3 up before Matthew began to recover from what had hit him.
“In every game I was always two or three points behind,” said Matthew. “When it was my turn I was always able to bring it back level. But then he would go again. I was never ahead in the business end of the games.”
“I managed not to play too fast all the time; to mix the rhythm by hitting some high balls to take control of the T,” said the newly crowned champion. “I tried to take a few things out of his game as well. It’s always interesting to watch all the guys play and see how they play tactically. I was happy to do it.”
It’s an approach that paid dividends against Shabana too. Playing tight squash, both short and deep, Gaultier took away the angles favored by the four-time World Champion. Gaultier has always relied on his movement to frustrate his opponents’ attempts to stretch the court, and did just that to neutralize Shabana’s attacking short game. Not only did Gaultier retrieve nearly every ball Shabana through at him, but he also turned those shots into attacking counters of his own—short and long.
And that was just two days removed from another cold Bay Area night when Shabana seemed completely at ease in the cool temperatures while making quick work of the top seed and World No. 1, James Willstrop, in a three-game quarterfinal.
When asked afterwards if he felt the cold conditions favored him, Shabana said, “I actually don’t like the cold. It does help with control of the court, but I’m not used to it and worry about getting injured. So I never stop moving around.”
That last statement was true. Between games, Shabana never sat down and was always first back on court. And it was also true that the conditions made his short game that much more effective as Willstrop never looked comfortable. The result was three-straight for Shabana, though the scores (11-8, 11-8, 11-9) were much closer than the match appeared.
Before moving to the McWil Show Court in Justin Herman Plaza, qualifiers and first round matches were played at San Francisco’s Bay Club, The Olympic Club, the University Club and Palo Alto’s Stanford University. American Julian Illingworth received a wild card into the main draw, hoping to score his most significant upset of his career—against the No. 2 seed and former World No. 1, Nick Matthew. Though Illingworth kept Matthew on court for 53 minutes, the upset was never in the cards as the Englishman swept him aside in three games.
But while the seeded players methodically made their way through the week, Gaultier was clearly the one to beat. Sharp and unusually calm throughout, the French World No. 3 played with a focus that even he admitted was improved. And that focus was perhaps most impressive in the final where he showed his ability to maintain his composure— not only when referee decisions didn’t go his way but, in particular, when Matthew succeeded in closing gaps midway through each game. He credits a new perspective on life after becoming a father for the first time eight weeks ago.
“I realize life is not only squash, and that was all my life before. I always put squash into one box and it was only it. And when you win life is beautiful, and when you lose it’s the end of the world. So now it gives me a great balance. There’s other things important in life. It gives me wings and has changed my attitude as well. It makes me more calm on court. I’m a really happy dad, and my girlfriend is really doing well. As long as Nolan is healthy, I’m happy. It’s an amazing feeling.”