Ripples From Philadelphia to Hull

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World Champion Laura Massaro (R) and opponent Annie Au needed to adjust to the glass court for their round of sixteen match up after playing their opening match on traditional plaster courts nearly a mile away. (image: Steve Line/squashpics.com)

by Richard Eaton

It felt as though the splash created at the U.S. Open, by awarding equal prize money to women, had sent ripples all the way across the Atlantic to the world’s most venerable tournament.

The ninety-two-year-old British Open saw Nicol David get back on track as a world-beater by regaining the title, but it was her advocacy for the women’s game that made more publicity than her triumph.

David’s 8-11, 11-5, 11-7, 11-8 win over titleholder Laura Massaro may well be a step towards her becoming the first player ever to lose and to win the world title in the same year, but the legendary Malaysian’s championing of the Briton’s cause augured profounder progress.

David skilfully used Massaro’s status as the only Englishwoman ever to hold both World and British Open titles as ammunition for criticizing the old tourney’s scheduling—and the attitudes it appeared to represent.

Massaro’s topical successes might well have attracted more spectator interest than most of the men’s first round matches. Instead she was obliged to play her opening encounter, along with every other women’s, more than a mile from the main arena and on traditional plaster-walled courts.

This discouraging anonymity was followed by second round survivors having to make quick and radical adjustments after moving to the all-glass show-court, where all the men’s matches had been scheduled from the outset.

“Now you have a women’s world champion, and that has to be special,” David pointed out gently but tellingly. “And there are so many English players in the top twelve—surely you want to display them, don’t you?” she asked.

“Why not put them all on the glass court? That’s the showcase and that’s what makes sense.”

David’s careful words were interpreted by international headlines as “blasting the British Open chiefs”—though they were effective in a very different way from that of the noisy journalise.

David drew attention not so much to what she wanted for herself but to how British patriotic interests and a commercial opportunity could have been used to aid gender equity, and how this had been wasted. It certainly made ticket-selling sense for a newly-crowned hero like Massaro to be on the show court from the start—and perhaps for other women too.

The impact of her argument was greater because crusading is unusual for David. Instead she has become hugely popular for a gentle, thoughtful persona as well as for record-breaking squash.

Her words also acquired force because she has previously endured such first round banishments with minimal comment. It gave these an authenticity. It also brought an aura of unselfishness.

Her coach, Liz Irving, blunter. “This has always been the attitude, and I can’t see it changing,” she said. Many would agree. There again, perceptions may be altering.

The 2014 women’s prize fund had been raised by $5,000, taking it to $100,000. That may not seem much considering the men’s was still fifty percent more, but the increase was nevertheless promoted as “another step on the road to equality.”

No public response followed David’s criticisms. Privately some considered them ill-timed. That was because they coincided with the end of a three-year sponsorship by Essam Allam, an Anglo-Egyptian businessman who owns Hull City Football Club, in whose complex of buildings the tournament was held. No renewal had yet been received.

Other controversies beset the women as well. They happened as five female seeds fell in the first round on the warmer, bouncier plaster courts—Madeline Perry, the number eight from Ireland, Jenny Duncalf, the number ten from England, Dipika Pallikal, the number twelve from India, Nour El Sherbini, the number thirteen from Egypt, and Rachael Grinham, the number fifteen from Australia.

By far the biggest shock was both the defeat of El Sherbini, the eighteen-year-old Egyptian who had been within a couple of points of becoming world champion after beating David in the semifinals in Penang, and the manner of that defeat.

El Sherbini’s anguish and confusion during an 11-5, 7-11, 11-6,11-9 loss to Emma Beddoes, an improving English player who has belatedly reached the top twenty, was eloquent of more than the squash.

International referees have been embarking on a new, tougher interpretation of what constitutes a let. The change of emphasis is designed to increase the continuity of the rallies and make squash more attractive for television worldwide—but most of the women knew nothing about it.

This weird predicament brought comment from Massaro. “The aim seems to be to make players play the ball more, which is a good thing,” she said. “But no-one told me that this was going to happen. The only place I heard about it was on Squash TV.

“I would have liked at least to have an e-mail from referees or from someone else who was dealing with it. I lost a few points without realizing there had been a change. It was a bit frustrating.”

That was minimal compared with the frustration displayed by El Sherbini and also by Pallikal, who despite saving six match points still lost 13-11 in the decider to Tesni Evans, a young Welsh qualifier.

El Sherbini became increasingly frozen with disbelief each time she received a “no let.” Pallikal was far from frozen: she told the referee he was “very biased,” a fiery comment that curiously brought no reprimand.

Beddoes, by contrast, adapted promptly. “You have to make sure you show you’re giving a hundred percent effort (to get to the ball),” she said. “With me that’s more obvious. I did think that she (El Sherbini) got a couple of unfortunate decisions. It’s tough if that’s the way the game is going.”

The men were far more aware of the evolution in the shop-window game that was being attempted. This is not surprising since the initiative came from the PSA, the men’s tour’s governing body. It has created the new role of director of refereeing, given to Lee Drew, a well-known English coach, and asked him to drive reforms forward. This has, unfortunately, coincided with a period of time when the WSA has relinquished one chief executive and has acquired another.

World No. 1 Nicol David (R) on her way to the British Open title against Massaro.  (image: Steve Line/squashpics.com)

World No. 1 Nicol David (R) on her way to the British Open title against Massaro. (image: Steve Line/squashpics.com)

Despite these issues the women’s final was as excellent as the men’s was disappointing. It produced sixty-four minutes of fascinating ebb and flow, and David’s patiently, painstakingly, intelligently carved out four-game victory was in doubt right until the end.

Massaro played significantly better while beating El Sherbini in the world final, and well enough to have beaten David had she not been back to near her best.

Increasing her ability to take the ball earlier, Massaro is now physically and mentally stronger, and does more tactically too. David may not be quite so quick as she was, but she is a better squash player. She created a good deal of variety without being forceful, and usually survived the longer rallies without errors in what became a very testing contest for both.

Massaro, perhaps the more relaxed, snatched the first game after winning a great last rally. However, from the middle stages of the next three games David made gradual progress by extending the rallies. She still had to come from 4-5 down in the second, 3-5 in the third and 4-5 in the fourth.

“I put my head down and stuck to what I was doing,” she said. “That was why I was able to put the pressure on her as much as I could.” She added: “This win means the world to me.”

It might become a platform for winning back the world title in the same year that she lost it, because the 2014 World Championships may be held in November. During the lead-up to that David will focus on the U.S. Open and the Hong Kong Open.

“But my ambition is not to win as many titles as I can,” she cautioned. “This is a sport which has so much to it that I can learn something every time I go on court. My main aim is more about understanding myself through squash.”

Massaro’s attitude was admirable, but less transcendental. “I wanted to come off today knowing where I stand, whether I deserve to be anywhere near her in the rankings,” she said. “And I’m not far away at all.

“The pressure she puts on you with her physicality is huge. In the middle of each game there were about a dozen terribly hard rallies. Nobody else but her can achieve that. She makes it so hard.

“She’s a brilliant, brilliant player. But my goal is not to be world number two. There is nothing wrong with that, but my goal is to be number one. I want to go to the final step and to see if I can do it.”

Gregory Gaultier (R) lunges on his way to deafeating World Champion Nick Matthew in the men's final. (image: Steve Line/squashpics.com)

Gregory Gaultier (R) lunges on his way to deafeating World Champion Nick Matthew in the men’s final. (image: Steve Line/squashpics.com)

The men’s final was, by great contrast, an anti-climax. Nick Matthew, the world champion from England, was trounced by Gregory Gaultier, the world number one from France, 11-3, 11-6, 11-2 in the shortest of all their thirty encounters. It was even shorter than Gaultier’s rapid dismissal of Matthew in the U.S. Open final that took only forty-five minutes.

Matthew had little left to give. Most of the thirty-three-year-old’s best was expended during two five-game encounters, one against his compatriot Daryl Selby in the second round and the other a sensational semifinal fight-back against Mohamed Elshorbagy, the fourth-seeded Egyptian.

Chivalry and professionalism required him to say otherwise. “I think Greg played out of his mind,” Matthew observed. “My legs felt good, so no excuse.”

Gaultier seemed pretty tired himself and he may have been fortunate that Matthew was in no state to take advantage. There was no doubting the Frenchman’s wonderful all-round skills though, which not only carved Matthew up but punctured Ramy Ashour ‘s title defense the previous day.

Rarely does anyone create as many stunning winners as the marvelous Ashour. But though he hoped to become the first Egyptian in fifty years to make a successful defense of the British Open, he was unable to summon the genius that dazzled Gaultier in last year’s final.

This time Gaultier was the more fluent and confident mover during a well-taken 11-7, 12-10, 3-11, 11-7 victory. It suggested that perhaps Ashour remains unsure of his fitness, despite the three months he took off to work on it between November and February. However, he did jerk his opponent about enough for Gaultier to admit he was “out of gas” well before the finish.

This was a theme of the later stages of the men’s event. The tour is tough and many of the leading players are not young. James Willstrop, the unluckiest man never to win the British Open, was drained after a seventy-six-minute struggle with Simon Rösner and a ninety-minute battle with Omar Mosaad, and was too labored to detain Ashour long in the quarterfinals.

Matthew had little left in the final against Gaultier, because of his colossal efforts in that match against Elshorbagy the previous day. It was the match of the tournament, a 106-minute semifinal drama that he won 4-11, 14-12 3-11, 11-7, 11-8 despite trailing for most of the match.

The Egyptian won their previous two encounters, and for some time has been looking good enough to make breakthroughs for the biggest titles. Many tip him to do that now, but Matthew refused to lose, even though he was twice within a point of going two games down.

Had the Englishman failed with either of those the twenty-three-year-old Elshorbagy would probably have won and might well have been fresh enough to go on and win the British Open.

The first he saved with a flashing volleyed nick of which even Ashour might have been proud. The second he patiently saved after Elshorbagy was lured into playing a drop in a front right situation from which he could not clear the ball properly.

Matthew also climbed back from1-4 down in the fourth game and two games to one down. He received a lengthy standing ovation when he won. It was the tournament’s most ecstatic moment.

“He’s a helluva player. I don’t know how many more of these wins I will get,” Matthew admitted to the crowd, perhaps a little ominously.

Another Egyptian hero, Amr Shabana, had stomach problems, and retired after only one game against Gaultier in the quarterfinals. The four-time former world champion nevertheless made his presence forcibly felt in the first round when he received a conduct stroke during an incident in which Max Lee, the Hong Kong player, was knocked to the ground from behind.

This was a skeptical Shabana venting exasperation at how the new refereeing guidelines were being implemented. “The referee kept telling me to go through to the ball—so I just tried to do that,” Shabana said. “He was in front of me and I just did what I was told, to go through him to get the ball.”

Despite the men’s disappointments there still has never been a more varied or colorful group of fine players than this. And they may soon have an exciting new addition.

That is Fares Dessouki, a nineteen-year-old from Cairo who entered the qualifying competition only as a last moment replacement and then made it not only to the main draw but all the way to the quarterfinals. In the process he overcame Karim Darwish, a former world number one.

Dessouki has a delightful range of shot-making options, and a maturing eye for the best of the many choices often available to him. He might have troubled Matthew had he snatched a second game that he was close to taking from the world champion.

Dessouki is outside the top fifty, at the time of writing. He was playing to a top ten standard. The top five looks within his ambit.

But the women’s final between David and Massaro was the final day highlight. It received respectful applause, but no more than that. More people would surely recognize their excellence were the women’s game to be promoted better.

After the U.S. Open tennis championships pioneered equal prize money back in1973, it took—astonishingly, given the increasing strength of the women’s game—thirty-four years before Wimbledon followed suit.

If the British Open squash championship is really to become the Wimbledon of squash, as it often likes to bill itself, it had better move quicker than that.

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