Queens and Princes at Grand Central

By James Zug

The eightieth J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions will be remembered for the
long-awaited arrival of a queen and the wildly exaggerated, misreported demise of a prince.

Nicol David had done everything in the game of squash, except play a competitive point at the most iconic squash tournament in the world. This year the prize money for the WSA draw was at the gold level, ensuring that, for the first time since the ToC was started in 1930, the best female players would take part.

And so the world No.1 finally appeared at Grand Central Terminal. She easily handled the adulation of the noisy, buzzing crowd—especially a never-ending line of autograph seekers— and journalists: one of the big media hits was the New York Daily News doing a major piece on David’s visit to SquashSmart’s headquarters in Harlem. Squash is a Hobbesian game like no other, and yet the 5’4” Malaysian is gentle, soft-spoken and generous with her time off-court.

On court, she decisively notched her seventy-second WSA title, not giving up a game in her four matches (though three of the twelve games were decided
by two-point margins). Moving like liquid, she hit acutely-angled volleys and then dared opponents to keep the ball up front. Until someone hits to length more precisely and retrieves more fervently, David will continue to win at a terrifying rate: according to SquashInfo. com, since becoming world No.1 in January 2006, David has played in seventy-seven WSA ranking tournaments, winning

Indeed, the jockeying continues amongst the other women over who will be the one to push David aside. Laura Massaro is often the first choice, as she beat David twice in 2013. But she couldn’t clinch a game in the ToC final, even after leaping to a 7-2 lead in the second.

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In the opening round of the 2014 ToC, the (unrelated) Perrys put themselves forward into the discussion. Not so much thirty-six year-old Madeline, who shocked Raneem El Welily, but Sarah- Jane, the formidable twenty-three year old who qualified through (outlasting Omneya Abdel Kawy 11-7 in the fifth) and took out Jenny Duncalf. An Englishwoman, Sarah-Jane is tall, tough and intimidating; much is expected from her.

Americans dashed expectations in Grand Central. In the qualies Sarah-Jane Perry took out Olivia Blatchford in three, and Line Hansen removed Sabrina Sobhy in four. The one homeside success in the qualies was Amanda Sobhy, who beat countrywoman Cece Cortes in three, then upset Nour El Sherbini in five (after losing the first two games). Both Sobhy and Latasha Khan lost in three in the opening round.

For the men, the story of the ToC was Amr Shabana. Three years ago, I reported in this magazine that the Maestro’s semifinal 2011 ToC match, an absolutely epic 12-10 in the fifth loss to Nick Matthew, might have been his swan song in Grand Central. Indeed, the next seasons made me look prescient. He won just one more major event, the 2011 Delaware Investments U.S. Open. Indeed in the last five tournaments he entered in 2013, Shabana lost in the quarters each time. He was ranked at the bottom of the top ten, as you’d expect from a quarterfinalist at top events. (He’s been in the top ten for 122 consecutive months.)

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In the midst of this slow but seemingly inexorable decline, in September 2013, Shabana came down with hepatitis A just after leaving the Showdown at Symphony in Boston. Previously he had just trained hard for eighteen straight weeks—no tournaments—and so at first thought it was just a case of overtraining. Instead, he was ordered to bed, where he stayed for five weeks. He watched television (Boardwalk Empire, Nurse Jackie, Seinfeld). From an already thin frame, he lost twenty pounds, going from seventy-three to sixty-four kilos. He played with his kids (now ages five, four and one). “It makes you appreciate what you’ve got,” Shabana said in New York. “Now I go from match to match.”

The first sign of a recovered Prince of Cairo was at a private- club event in New York the week before the ToC in which, down 0-2 to Daryl Selby, he didn’t bail on the third game but pushed it until he lost 24-22. Seeded seventh at the ToC, Shabana turned the tables on Nick Matthew, beating him 11-9 in the fifth. It was another glorious encounter, full of twists and turns, the difference measured in millimeters. That was the quarters, and Shabana ran downhill thereafter. In the semis, he pounced on James Willstrop, winning in four games, and in the finals he took out Gregory Gaultier in three.

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For Americans Todd Harrity (Above, in white) and Amanda Sobhy, their trips to the Tournament of Champions were short-lived as Harrity was upended in straight games by Egypt’s Mohamed Elshorbagy, and Sobhy was quitely eliminated by England’s Alison Waters. But joining them in early disappointment were England’s Adrian Grant (Above, in black) who was crushed in three games by top-seeded Nick Matthew, while Egypt’s Mohamed Reda met similar fate at the hands of Laurens Anjema of the Netherlands.

The old confidence was there, the magnificent brutality of his volleys, but the arrogance was gone. I had seen him in Bermuda, at the World Open more than six years earlier, when he was at his absolute apogee. Then he was cocky, swashbuckling, visibly reveling in his mastery. Now he was calm and almost endearingly focused. After one game, he got off court and walked the wrong way, almost sitting down in his opponent’s chair before he realized his bag and coaches were at the other side of Vanderbilt Hall. “I’m going to play until the wheels come off,” Shabana said, belittling the notion that this is one final push from the southpaw who turns thirty-five in July.

For Americans, the wheels never got on. Brad Thompson, Adrian Leanza, Mike Lewis and Faraz Khan lost in the first round of the qualies and Julian Illingworth retired with an injury. Chris Gordon lost in the last round of the qualies to Omar Meguid in a bitterly contested, let-filled, unbelievably physical four-game match that lasted seventy-five minutes. Wild-card  Todd Harrity acquitted himself nicely in his main-draw, three-game loss to Mohamed Elshorbagy. The biggest news out of the qualies was that Harvard senior Ali Farag got through and then nipped a game off Chris Simpson in the main draw.

Now in its seventeenth year in Grand Central, the scene was as vibrant as ever. John Nimick, tournament director, hosted a luncheon that attracted 140 women and men and honored Natalie Grainger. Table tennis on the day of the finals, ToC Pong, came off as usual, with the ToC squad, the Event Engineers, led by photographer Steve Line and referee Mike Riley putting on a good show. DJ Nudie, otherwise known as former world No.13 Anneliza Naude, mixed some pulsating music in between games.

Whether it was fifty degrees and sunny or five degrees and dumping snow, New York City seemed to be focused on the ToC. Each night it grew increasingly busy in Vanderbilt Hall, culminating at the semifinals when the crush of people was stunning (and a few thousand more filled the Main Concourse waiting out weather-related delays). For the first time, it was easier to get beer from a box seat than from the bar outside the court: waiters ferried plastic lidded-cups in racks, like vendors at a baseball game.

Thirsts needed to be slaked. Watching David and Shabana made all mouths go dry in wonderment.