By James Zug
It was a spectacular point and unlike most spectacular points, the entire tournament — and possibly much more — hinged on it.
In football you have The Drive and The Catch and The Play (possibly also The Fumble but there are two of them); in basketball you sort of have The Shot. Well, for squash, this might become The Point. I have been repeatedly asked about it by people who missed it, and I have overheard guys at two different squash clubs in two different states talking about it. For a month, everyone was gabbing about Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El Shorbagy’s point in the finals of the World Championships (9-9 in the fourth) but this might have superseded it.
Dateline: Grand Central. 24 January 2013. Gregory Gaultier v. Ashour, the finals of the 2013 J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, Gaultier up 2-1 in games, but down in the fourth 5-2.
After exchanging left-wall rails, Ashour lifts, in his usual, confidently casual way, a high, crosscourt lob. Gaultier, his legs beginning to turn to jelly after three hours of intense squash over the past two nights and a further hour-plus this night, hits a loose forehand volley, the ball not near the side wall. Naturally, Ashour shoots. He gets an opening, he shoots. His forehand volley is tight and short and Gaultier, hurtling up court, barely scrapes the clinging straight drop off the side wall. Ashour slingshots towards the front wall for the kill. Gaultier has to gamble, he can’t wait to see where the ball goes: is Ashour going to hit a counter-drop, a rail or a crosscourt. Gaultier guesses crosscourt.
He is right. Ashour cracks a cross-court and Gaultier, .with great hands, slaps a blind reflex volley. The ball goes up the middle of the court and Ashour, his body awkwardly facing the back wall, swings: a pure, instinctive volley. Bang, bang.
Ashour’s ball, a backhand drop, almost nicks. Gaultier picks it up and hits a tiny counterdrop, a sure winner with anyone-anyone—else on court in the world. Ashour digs it out. “Wow,” shouts Joey Barrington, the SquashTV commentator, watching this sequence, “my goodness, me.”
“Well, this is absolutely ridiculous,” adds Paul Johnson, the other commentator. The Point continues. Gaultier hits a backhand boast from the back of the court. It is not a good one and Ashour again lopes to the front right corner to take another gimme. This time, he smacks a forehand rail. Again, Gaultier is forced to choose and again—twice in one point—he guesses correctly. He quickly volleys Ashour’s rail cross-court, no doubt for a winner.
More magic in his wand, Ashour again stabs at the ball as it rockets past him. Again he hits a masterful, absolutely improbable straight drop. This time it is a winner.
The standing-room only crowd in Vanderbilt Hall screams and claps and stands on their feet. Ashour, ever the showman, turns to face the adoring crowd, and, with a scowl on his face—”how could you ever doubt me?—strums his racquet like a guitar. Gaultier playfully pushes Ashour aside. Ashour then walks around the court, smiles and raises his eyebrows to acknowledge the beauty of the moment.
“Oh, my goodness, gracious me,” Barrington exclaimed. “It’s like something out of Star Trek. Oh, my goodness me. What reactions.”
“That’s the rally of the tournament,” Johnson said.
“I’m sure that will be disappearing onto the Internet,” said Barrington. Indeed it did. More than 20,000 views came in the first three days after The Point was posted online. Perhaps it is on its way to being the most viewed squash point in history. Twenty seconds of squash and it contained a lot about the magnificence of the sport.
Before the point, Gaultier was in control. He had grabbed the first two games. He barely missed the third, after knotting it at 10-all. He was confident. He was also relaxed. In earlier incarnations, Gaultier was fiery, mercurial, apt to blow a gasket and a lead. He had squandered match balls in the finals of the 2006 World Open in Egypt. He was a bit of a flake. At tournaments he sometimes asked his roommates to help him figure out the laundry machines in hotel basements.
But now, fatherhood had calmed him. He and his girlfriend had a son, Nolan, in August and with a baby in the house he had a new perspective.
After The Point, it was over. As Ashour served at 6-2, Gualtier looked at referee Mike Riley and then at his wrist, as if asking Riley to penalize Ashour for time wasted air-guitaring. But it was as if Gaultier was looking at the time and realizing his was up. He won just two more points in the match.
Ramy hasn’t lost to Gaultier in a full match since September 2009, according to Squashlnfo.com, when he went down 11-9 in the fifth at the Sky Open in Cairo. Since then their matches have been long—an average of 67 minutes—but Ashour has taken each of the last sixteen (including the non-ranking World Team Championships). Had Ashour rope-a-doped Gaultier, letting him punch himself out in the first three games, so that at the last minute he’d swoop in with his cross-court smashes and silky drops to walk away with the match? Or had Gaultier flummoxed him until The Point? Who knows. Go watch it again.
Parenthood was even more a part of the story for the women’s draw. Natalie Grinham, the fourth seed, romped to victory for the second year in a row. Unlike last year, she had her two-and-a-half year-old son, Kieran, in tow. Her older sister Rachael was tasked with taking care of Kieran during her matches (they ended up batting balls around under the bleachers). The baby-sitting situation became tricky when the Grinham sisters faced each other in the semis.
Natalie got stronger as the week progressed, going five against Nour El Tayeb in the first round, four against Sarah Kippax in the quarters but cruising in three against Rachael (without a single let—how many siblings can do that?) and Kasey Brown in the finals. Grinham turns 35 in March, so this latest burst might herald her final sojourn in the top ten in the world.
But who knows about age anymore? Latasha Khan turned 40 the day before she took on Madeline Perry in the opening round (she lost in three) and is 26 in the world. And Amanda Sobhy, age 19 and ranked 19, won her first match over Delia Arnold. In the quarters she played Kasey Brown very tightly but lost in three. The second game went long into the tiebreaker (15-13) after Sobhy blew a couple of game balls (at 13-13, showing great sportsmanship, she called a ball down on herself). “I’m disappointed,” she said afterwards, but staying in the top 20 in the world while attending college full-time and playing for her college team is a feat that no one in the world has ever pulled off.
Her sister Sabrina Sobhy fought hard in the qualies but lost in three to Joshana Chinappa who, back from injury, went on to knock off her countrywoman and No. 2 seed Dipika Pallikal in the opening round. Olivia Blatchford snagged one round in the qualies and then lost a very tough match 11-9 in the fifth to Amanda Landers-Murphy.
On the men’s side, the qualies were equally fascinating. Marwan El Shorbagy was up 2-0, 6-0 in the third and then 8-3 in the fifth but couldn’t clinch his match against Yasir Ali Butt. Chris Gordon won the first two games and then lost the next three all 12-10 in his hour and a half tussle with Abdullah Al Muzayen. Julian lllingworth won his first qualies match but then lost in three to Shawn Delierre. It was a disappointing showing by the eight-time U.S. national champion. The crowd at the New York Athletic Club was boisterously enthusiastic—many were on the Columbia teams that lllingworth helps coach. Wild-carded into the main draw, Todd Harrity, the 22-year-old senior at Princeton, made his debut on the McWil glass court in Grand Central, with a good effort against Tom Richards. He played aggressively in the first game and almost converted a game ball at 10-9 before running out of gas in the next two games. The cheer at Harrity’s introduction might have been the loudest all week.
Other matches held the interest of the massive crowds in Vanderbilt Hall. Adrian Grant again stumbled hard in the second round. This was almost to be expected. According to Squashlnfo.com, Grant has a tendency to grind through endless first-round matches against lesser players, which deplete him before a tough second-round tussle that he ends up losing badly. (At the 2012 J.P. Morgan ToC he spent 83 minutes dispatching Alan Clyne and thus couldn’t push Nick Matthew beyond three games; two months later at Canary Wharf, he spent 74 minutes getting beyond Chris Simpson and then lost in half an hour to Mohamed El Shorbagy; in October at the Delaware Investments U.S. Open, he endured an 88-minute, five-gamer against Karim Ab-del Gawad and so again lost to Matthew in three a day later; and at the World Championship in December he spent 65 minutes getting beyond Rex Hendrick and then lost in three to Ramy Ashour.)
In Grand Central, Grant went down 0-2 before scrambling back to overcome Cameron Pilley. In the next round against Stephen Coppinger, he again started slowly and found himself 0-2 down. He won the next two but ground to a halt and lost 11-1 in the fifth.
Coppinger thus reached his first World Series quarters ever. Having given up the Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer diet, Coppinger copped to a new habit: he was using the RecoveryBoots, a new compression system designed to help your legs recover from a tough match. Fresh legs or not, he lost in three in the quarters to James Willstrop.
Gregoire Marche, Gaultier’s sparring partner in Provence, came through the qualies, beating Max Lee 12-10 in the fifth in a 99-minute grueler, and then he continued the good work, beating Olli Tuominen in four. Tuominen was none too happy with the result, especially because Marches racquet inadvertently banged into his face in a celebratory gesture. Marche succumbed to Mohamed El Shorbagy who then put up a tremendous but failing effort against Gaultier.
The semis, as anticipated, were terrific. Willstrop lost in five to Ashour in a truly amazing spectacle of shot making. Gaultier dismissed Nick Matthew in four brutal games, two in overtime. Matthew had a tough draw, forced to beat Amr Shabana and Karim Darwish in consecutive rounds and didn’t have enough zip in his legs—the same problem perhaps for Gaultier in the final.
Grand Central Terminal celebrated its centennial while we were there. It was the 16th time the ToC had graced the grand old lady, and yet the media flocked to it as if it was the first time. The New Yorker, USA Today, New York Times Magazine, Forbes and DeadSpin all ran articles. The atmosphere in Vanderbilt Hall was the same: a splendid assault on the senses, with food and drink, the clean-cut lines of the tables, past winners on posters and always the two crowds, one craning at the front wall and the other watching the match near the bar.
Seated at a table nearly every night was Johnny Greco. The Bronx-born septuagenarian—a former teaching pro at a half-dozen clubs in Manhattan who just retired last year—threw off stories like the sparks from a squealing tire. He talked about all-night poker games at pro-am tournaments and trophies left in bars; he recalled one pro who only drank three times a year but when he did, it was a week-long bender. Watching one player fail to hunt down the response to his counter-drop, Greco quoted a hoary Henri Sa-laun line: it is not whether they can go up to get the shot, it’s if they can get back.”
Greco has been watching pro squash for well more than half a century. He’s close to the current crop, especially Nick Matthew and he told me the advice he gave to Matthew before the tournament: “be clear, be quick, be severe.” Movement and footwork; speed and anticipation; and deadly shot making. That is Ramy Ashour in a nutshell, as The Point so amply demonstrated.