By Richard Eaton
Photos by Steve Line/squashpics.com
There were many well-publicized reasons why Ramy Ashour’s capture of the British Open title—at a pioneering outdoor venue in Hull City’s soccer stadium—has carried him further along the road to greatness. But one of the reasons was hidden. Quite possibly the most important one.
Much news was made of Ashour breaking a 47-year jinx, the inexplicable length of time since an Egyptian last won the sport’s famous old tournament. He achieved it after beating France’s Gregory Gaultier in a four-game final so stuffed full of invention, great strokes, and passionate outbursts that it became hard to believe how professional squash once used to be criticized as predictable and repetitive.
Much was written too about how Ashour’s victory had maintained his year-long unbeaten run, extending it to 41 wins, eight successive titles, and many tens of thousands of miles of travel.
This achievement may seem modest compared with Jahangir Khan’s five-and-a-half year sequence in the 1980’s. It is nevertheless remarkable given the unique speed of the modern game, and the zig-zag distances of its irrational current tour, and the unprecedented variety of today’s top-level opposition.
Ashour also gained plenty of attention with hopes that success might help lift the mood of his beleaguered people, and with tweets about what was happening in Tahrir Square.
What suggests that the man from Cairo is a genius in the making is his increasing ability to make spirits soar both at the wonder of his squash and with the tumbling generosity of his words.
But Ashour’s hidden achievements may be more crucial than any of these things. His mental struggles had reached a crisis. His emotions had, he said, been blighted by a kind of black cloud. It was a gloom, or hovering threat, neither of which he could fully explain, but which felt more formidable because of that.
As Ashour revealed this, it was possible to sense his strengthening character, an area of his abilities about which there had been the most doubt.
“I experienced waking up with such a heavy heart and a heavy spirit,” he said as his triumph began to give way to reflection. “There were a lot of hard times back home. There was a lot of negative energy around me.
“I pushed myself to train as hard as I have ever done, with lots of distractions. These things teach you a lot, and I have learned a lot in the last couple of months.”
Suddenly gesturing towards the triple-tiered trophy, he said: “This is a moment I have been waiting for, for a very long time. There have been a lot of negatives.
“Only a few people know that I am now so much stronger than any negatives or any bad influences,” he concluded. “I have proved a lot of people wrong. When you have no option but to be strong, you learn how strong you are.”
This last remark sounded very significant for a career whose brilliance had been unpredictable until last year. Its precise meaning may not have been entirely clear but a clue was found in the philosophy weaved into his revelations.
“The game is just a game, and not as important as what you play for,” he said, sounding very sage. Ashour had been playing as much to dispel national gloom, as for himself. He had been playing as a response to the savage shock of the cost-cutting which threatens to derail Egyptian
squash, as well as to escape from the intense personal depression which had developed from all this.
“I have had a lot of hard times back home, and I am really proud of myself with what I have achieved. So this is one of the happiest moments of my life,” he concluded. Then he added: “If not the happiest.”
Ashour’s route to the final went past two previously troublesome opponents, Borja Golan, the only Spanish-born player to reach the world’s top-ten, and Omar Mosaad, his sometimes domineering top-ten compatriot.
Ashour lost the first two games to Golan at last year’s British Open, but overcame him 11-7, 11-4, 11-7 in the quarterfinals this time. Ashour had looked in danger of defeat to Mosaad in January at the World Championships, but now he beat him well, by 11-2, 11-4, 11-9 in the first round. He didn’t quieten him though.
Instead it became the tournament’s most contentious match, a battle of words developing after a dispute over a let decision in the second game.
From that moment the number of lets steadily increased, and the match ended with the two men arguing at close quarters in the front of the court. They were arguing again as they reached the door of the court, delaying the postmatchinterview for the crowd, and reportedly were arguing a third time afterwards in the changing room.
At issue may have been Ashour’s worry that the bigger and taller Mosaad, who had not been far from bullying him to defeat at the World Open in Doha in December, was using his height and weight to deny room to play the ball. But it was impossible to hear what they were saying, and the spectators were mystified.
“Is everything all right?” the master of ceremonies asked with nice irony as they appeared before her to talk at last.
Ashour’s response was excellent. “Someone had to pay for lunch today,” he answered. “And he had to pay today, and I will pay tomorrow, so that was the discussion,” he concluded with great satire, making spectators chortle. What happens between them on court stays on court, he later explained.
Ashour also overcame two Englishmen in straight games—Chris Simpson, a youngish qualifier, and James Willstrop, the world number one for much of last year. Willstrop would have hoped to do better, though even a 11-2, 11-9, 13-11 loss was a kind of achievement considering that he had been scrapping for survival for 107 minutes in the tournament’s longest match late the previous night.
This saw Willstrop saving two match points in the third game of a damagingly courageous encounter with Cameron Pilley. The Australian had had to save three match points himself the day before against Mohamed El Shorbagy before beating the world runner-up from Egypt by 13-11 in the final game. Another marathon now was pure torture.
In the last half dozen rallies a badly cramping Pilley was able to hobble no more than a couple of strides for each shot. It might have made more sense to stop, though perhaps the Aussie reflected that he had contributed to the Pommie’s defeat the following day. By then Willstrop
had only recovered some of his movement, despite prolonged physiotherapy. Against Ashour that could never be enough.
Gaultier meanwhile had a dedication for his excellent run to the final to meet Ashour. It was to Richard Pons, a coach whom he invited to join his entourage at last year’s British Open—only for Pons to be taken ill and, to everyone’s amazement, to die.
“I would really like to win the British Open again,” said the only Frenchman ever to have done so. In the final he delivered a fine performance full of varied attacks, taking the first game well, and leading 7-5 in the third game and 7-6 in the fourth. But it was not quite fine enough.
Ashour’s focus improved in the second game, and after that he often came up with something unstoppable when it mattered most. Unorthodox flicks, sudden nicks, ambushing disguises increased both in number and surprise as he advanced to his 7-11, 11-4, 11-7, 11-8 victory.
An important moment came in the third game with Gaultier still ahead by two points, an excitable exchange of words following a collision in which the Frenchman hurt his leg. “Settle down, settle down, let’s play squash,” the referee yelled—but it was four minutes before Gaultier reluctantly did. In the next four rallies he struck the ball down three times, and ended that game hurling his racket away in disgust.
Ashour concluded the match with a masked drive which died to a perfect length and a sudden forehand drop shot that was unreachable. “I did what I could, and I think my level was very good,” was Gaultier’s assessment. “But when Ramy is like this he is very hard to stop.”
Gaultier had survived one other contentious match, when he played Tarek Momen, the rising Egyptian, on a slippery club court in an on-off 89-minute contest, 22 of which were spent floor-wiping.
Once Gaultier threatened to quit, causing anxious behind-the-scenes arguments. “I do not want to play ice hockey,” he complained, though he was funny while he was angry too.
Eventually Gaultier was resolute too, his 11-8, 11-7, 13-11 win coming against an opponent who not only ensured a world top-ten ranking with a four-game win over the seventh-seeded Peter Barker the round before, but caused the Englishman to shatter a racket by hacking it furiously against the back of his leg.
Gaultier’s biggest achievement was ending the title defense of Nick Matthew in the semifinals, his 9-11, 11-7, 11-3, 11-6 win providing a marvelous contrast of styles and a compelling mixture of sportsmanship and feistiness.
Gaultier controlled both ball and wayward emotions well, while the second-seeded Matthew—the only Englishman ever to win the British Open three times— became upset by the direction of the match, by refereeing decisions, and apparently by Gaultier’s failure to clear properly as well.
It made the champion repeatedly challenge referee John Massarella, a fellow Yorkshireman, who told him to get back on court and stop arguing. Matthew had harsher words still for Gaultier, whom once he shoved across the court while trying to seek a way past.
Before the final rally he was heard quietly to call his opponent a cheat, though the Frenchman had a different description of what passed between them.
“He tried to get under my skin, playing a bit physical and also talking to me, but I didn’t care,” Gaultier said. “I was able to stay focused which I haven’t always done before. I tried to stay calm and play the right shot at the right time, and play my tactics. I just tried to play my game.”
Gaultier’s sarcasm and histrionics during the Momen match had largely been a reaction to the discouraging problems which, from the start, beset the first outdoor tournament ever held in the UK.
Unseasonably cold temperatures made balls very unresponsive, rallies painfully staccato, and tactical choices difficult. According to Willstrop this turned the squash into “just a shoot-out.”
It was followed by rain which forced matches indoors onto club courts, before relenting and allowing them back outside again, only to return more heavily than before, requiring an entire day’s play to be scheduled on a conventional court.
This brought more difficulties. Sweating plaster walls caused Willstrop’s 106-minute win over Simon Rosner of Germany to contain no more than 41 minutes of actual play. The rest was occupied with floor-sweeping and wall-wiping.
Inevitably there were critics, some of them in the media. An explanation of the pioneering decision to stage the British Open outdoors was made by Alex Gough, the chief executive of the Professional Squash Association.
“Some people don’t realize how squash has been evolving,” Gough said. “We have had tournaments out of doors for quite a long time in different parts of the world. They are staged very successfully and it is quite reasonable to try the same thing in Britain.”
Only during the last two days did the sun emerge. But that didn’t end the problems either. Instead it created a dazzling back wall reflection which made it appear as if spectators were miraculously suspended in mid-air above the court. From some seats it became hard to tell what was happening.
Fortunately Ashour’s efforts brought a transcendental quality to it all. He paid tribute to the surviving significance of the old tournament, thought its absence of Egyptian champions had been a mystery, and enjoyed a special empathy of the sponsor, Assem Allam, an Egyptian-raised
engineer who moved to Yorkshire 40 years ago to make his multi-millions.
It encouraged Ashour to return to a favorite theme. “We are new to democracy and it takes time for people to understand how it works,” he said. “The poor people thought after our revolution that Egypt will be a paradise, but it is the other way around.
“I am just trying to do my role and do what I should to represent my country around the world. I want to make people back home happy.”
We can only hope that he does. At the very least he did it for the weather-blighted British.