2014: The Year of Champions
By Will Carlin
The end of the year in squash featured two of the most stunning matches in history at the men’s and women’s world championships. The two players who emerged triumphant are two of the most celebrated players in squash today. The year was filled with notable results from players who have been previous champions and had their squash playlists set to repeat mode. Here are the highlights:
Match Points Galore in World Championship Finals
Both the men’s and women’s world championship matches featured players fighting off multiple match points in a row. Raneem El Welily of Egypt had played triumphantly throughout the Women’s World Championships in front of her home country fans in Cairo. In the finals, she led the seven-time world champion, Nicol David, two games to one and 10-6. With four chances to win one point for her first world title, El Welily was unable to withstand the pressure of the moment and her opponent; David clawed back to 10-10 before eventually winning the game 14-12. With momentum now firmly on her side, David cruised to an 11-5 fifth game to win her eighth world title and secure her ninth consecutive year at number one in the rankings.
In Doha, just a few weeks earlier, Ramy Ashour stunned the squash world by making the world finals after a seven-month hiatus due to his nagging hamstring. Most thought that his opponent, new world number one Mohammed Elshorbagy, would be too strong and too fit for Ashour. But in a match that displayed shotmaking and retrieving brilliance with shifts of momentum that had to be witnessed to be fully comprehended, Ashour took the match to the fifth game and then got to a 10-5 lead. Ashour had five match points in a row to win his third world title. With a stunning succession of incredible rallies, however, Elshorbagy showed how he has matured on his way to the top spot on the planet, staving off one match ball after another. Suddenly, it was 10-10. Each player had match balls, as the match trickled into an excruciatingly exciting overtime. And then, as quick as an Ashour nick, it was over, and Ashour had managed to withstand Elshorbagy’s massive momentum shift to win 14-12 in the fifth.
Repeat Champions at the Commonwealth Games
Without squash in the Olympics, the regional games around the world are the closest that squash players come to participating in an Olympic-like event. For the past fifteen years, the regional games with the best squash competition have been the Commonwealth Games. Perhaps that’s why the three men’s champions and four women’s champions all list their gold medals as career highlights. This year, Nick Matthew and Nicol David each took home a second gold medal. They are part of an elite group of singles gold medalists that includes only Peter Nicol (two-time winner) and Jonathon Power on the men’s side, and Michelle Martin, Sarah Fitz-Gerald and Natalie Grinham for the women.
This year’s Games also were notable for the return of former world number one, David Palmer, who won gold medals in both the men’s and mixed doubles (with Cameron Pilley and and Rachael Grinham, respectively). Palmer had lost to Nicol in what is widely considered the best Commonwealth finals ever and one of the best squash matches of all time, so winning these two golds was an unexpected career highlight.
Mudge & Gould Continue Doubles Dominance
As impressive as Palmer’s gold medal victories were at the Commonwealth Games, it was too bad that it was in softball doubles, which is a very different – and, many would say, vastly inferior – version of the game. Professional doubles is played on a much larger court with an explosively fast harder ball that produces points that are perhaps the most spectator-friendly and exciting points in any version of squash. It requires a combination of extraordinary power and surprisingly deft touch to play at the highest level, and the best team on the planet for the last number of years has been Damien Mudge and Ben Gould. 2014 was no exception as they won six of the eight tournaments they entered and took home repeat titles in the biggest events of the tour (the Johnson and the North American). It is tantalizing to think about them playing a match against the extreme power of Palmer (one of the hardest hitters in history) and Pilley (who holds the world record for the hardest hit squash ball) in a pro event. But that will have to wait.
Illingworth Takes Ninth US Title
Julian Illingworth didn’t have time to wait any longer. After being upset in the 2013 U.S. Championships, he was determined to get back on track in the 2014 edition. And he won it in emphatic fashion, beating Todd Harrity in straight games to take his ninth U.S. title, the most in history. All four of the semifinalists (Chris Gordon lost to Harrity and Gilly Lane lost to Illingworth) have been ranked in the top 100 in the world, with Gordon, Harrity and Illingworth still holding top-100 positions.
The Sobhy Sisters
Amanda Sobhy did a lot last year. She moved into the top ten in the world in the women’s pro rankings; she made the semifinals or better in six pro tournaments and won two titles; she posted her third consecutive undefeated season at Harvard, winning her third intercollegiate singles title; and she anchored the U.S. women’s team to its first top-five finish. Almost perfect.
The spoiler of Amanda’s dream season? Her younger sister, Sabrina, who shocked her older sister in the finals of the U.S. Championships. Sabrina, who has been quietly matching her older sister’s accomplishments on the junior scene, has recently been admitted to Harvard for next year. With one national title under her belt, these two will be battling each other for years to come. And they may do for women’s squash what two sisters named Venus and Serena did for women’s tennis.