By Beth Rasin
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
The excitement, energy and electricity of the world’s largest spectator squash event, played under the breathtaking chandeliers of Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall in front of tens of thousands of New Yorkers, is what has distinguished the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions as one of the players’ absolutely favorite tour stops. Add to that a 50% increase in prize money, and the 2009 ToC has its most competitive field in recent history. With J.P. Morgan as its new title sponsor and the addition of four new silver sponsors—American Express, Lexington Partners, Frank Crystal & Company and MarketAxess—the Tournament of Champions has increased its prize money to $115,000, making it a PSA Super Series Gold event. As a result, 23 of the top 26 players in the world—representing 12 countries—will be in New York City from January 23-29, 2009, to compete on the glittering glass court in Grand Central Terminal.
With the 2009 PSA tour results proving that on any given day a title could be taken by any one of the top five players, the chase for the ToC title is as wide open as it has ever been. However, given that the world’s top three ranking players hail from Egypt and a fourth Egyptian is in the top 10, one might reasonably predict that the trophy will go back to Egypt for a fourth consecutive year. Nonetheless, the presence of players from at least 12 additional countries holds the promise of drama, upsets and sizzling squash. And as additional inspiration, the ToC will salute 95-year-old squash legend Hashim Khan on the first evening of the tournament.
Amr Shabana, who held the World No. 1 ranking for 33 of the past 36 months, missed the chance to defend his 2006 and 2007 crowns last year to be at home in Egypt for the birth of his first child. He’d like to reclaim the trophy, and the No. 1 ranking, which he relinquished on January 1 to his countryman Karim Darwish, against whom Shabana had a 2-2 record in 2008.
Darwish, the 27-year-old who suddenly this year has ascended to the top of the rankings after languishing in the No. 8-12 spots since 2003, closed out the best year of his career by defeating Shabana in the quarterfinals of 2008’s final event, the Saudi International, and winning the richest prize in the history of squash. Perhaps he was inspired by his wife Engy Keirallah, whose five game comeback victory in early December secured the first ever women’s world team championship for Egypt!
Defending champion Ramy Ashour, the 21-year-old Egyptian currently ranked No. 3 in the world rankings, won the World Open title in September to add to his two Junior World Championships, and relishes his return to NYC. Returning to the Big Apple may be just the inspiration he needs to best his elders again. “The Tournament of Champions is one of the biggest and brightest tournaments on the tour calendar,” says Ashour. “I do wait for this tournament every year with excitement. I always feel comfortable and relaxed when I play in New York, perhaps because of the very knowledgeable and respectful crowd. It gives me the feeling that I am in the right place for squash.”
Fourth ranked Gregory Gaultier, a two-time ToC semifinalist, may have an extra special motivation to nab the title, as he will be accompanied by a French TV crew filming his New York City exploits. And fifth seed James Willstrop would very much like to improve upon last year’s runner-up finish.
For the fans, the ToC is truly about the players—all the players, not just the one who takes home the trophy. The ToC crowd especially enjoys the fact that after being awed by the extraordinary displays of athleticism, power, shotmaking and speed on court, they can join the best players in the world for a beer at the bar. As a result, there are fan groups for all the players, whether its the 32-year-old lions of the tour—Aussie David Palmer and Frenchman Thierry Lincou—who are appreciated for their rugged presence and staying power, Wael El Hindi’s urban style, Nick Matthew’s strength, Peter Barker’s steadiness, Ong Beng Hee’s all court game, the flying Finn Olli Tuominen’s tenacity, the speed of Colombia’s Miguel Angel Rodriguez, the smooth shotmaking of Malaysia’s Mohd Azlan Iskander, or the smoking shot power of John White. Home country favorite, Julian Illingworth, the wild card entry, will, of course, have the biggest cheering section as he tries to better his second round finish of the last two years.
The professionals won’t be the only ones taking home trophies from the ToC. Four Junior champions will also be crowned this year as the inaugural ToC Junior Open, featuring Boys and Girls U15 and U17 draws, will be contested at the just-opened SL Green StreetSquash Center in Harlem, with the U17 finals on the ToC glass court. “The ToC Junior Open is the logical extension of the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions during what has become known as squash week in New York City,” Tournament promoter John Nimick says.
The Grand Open is the companion amateur tournament run by the Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association during the first weekend of the ToC, enabling entrants to catch ToC matches between their own court play. This year’s Grand Open will also be a regional skill level championship. And, adding one more racquet twist to the 2009 ToC, on Monday, January 26, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of NYC will host “ToC Pong,” a one-day benefit table tennis tournament that will be played on the glass court. It will indeed be the world’s best squash—and a little something extra—at the 2009 J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions.