Matthew Lombardi looks at the main contenders …
Of the 64 players in the main draw of the World Championships, there are four who stand out as heavy favorites. If Ramy Ashour, Nick Matthew, Mohamed Elshorbagy, or Gregory Gaultier isn’t the eventual winner, it will represent a seismic shock in the squash world.
These four are squash’s superstars—all supremely skilled, fit, intuitive, and savvy. Yet each has his own idiosyncrasies and points of weakness. Like the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon, they’re endowed with superhuman powers, but it’s their personality quirks that make them engaging.
Defending world champion Ramy Ashour, a 28-year-old Cairo, Egypt, native, is squash’s Chosen One. There’s no question that he’s the most talented player of his generation, and his name will come up in any debate about the greatest player of all time.
It seems that he was born to play squash. He glides effortlessly around the court, anticipates the shots of his opponents like a mind reader, patiently works to gain advantages in court position, and then strikes like a cobra with a breathtaking attacks.
His skill is matched with an ebullient personality. He bounces onto the court like a kangaroo, smiles and jokes during his matches, and gives famously manic post-match interviews. No one else on the pro tour has as much fun playing squash as Ashour does. He’s not just a transcendent talent—he also embodies the joy of the game.
Ashour’s one great shortcoming has been his susceptibility to injury. He had knee surgery when he was 15, and a few years later he began experiencing hamstring problems that have plagued him throughout his career. He won his first World Championship in 2008 at the age of 21 and was a finalist in 2009, but in both 2010 and 2011 he had to retire from the tournament due to injury.
He was injured again in the 2014 British Open and entered last year’s World Championship not having played a competitive match in six months. Despite the layoff he reached the final, where he and #1-ranked Mohamed Elshorbagy engaged in an epic battle. Ashour won the fifth game 14-12 to retake the world title.
His health problems have continued in 2015, with injuries to his knee and Achilles heel limiting his play. If he’s healthy for the World Championship he’s a favorite to win it again. Win or lose, his matches are guaranteed to be entertaining.
Mohamed Elshorbagy, a 24-year-old from Alexandria, Egypt, has been the #1-ranked player in the world since November of 2014. Despite the top ranking, he’s still a young, evolving talent with something to prove.
He was a World Championship finalist in 2012 and 2014, but both years he lost in riveting five-game matches to Ramy Ashour. His singular ambition is to come to Bellevue, win the world title, and thus solidify his standing as the game’s top player. To make the triumph complete he’ll need to beat Ashour in the process.
What sets Elshorbagy apart is his pure athleticism. There are taller, brawnier players on the tour, but his combination of speed and size makes it seem like he’s playing on a smaller court than everyone else, and he wields his racquet like a flyswatter. He has an unmatched ability to play at a fast pace without sacrificing accuracy. He loves to turn rallies into high-speed shootouts, putting his opponents under relentless pressure.
No matter who he’s playing, he’s tends to be at his best when he’s fighting back from behind. In the 2014 World Championships he was losing 5-10 in the fifth game to Ashour and pulled off an astonishing comeback, fending off five match balls to level the score 10-10. Once he drew even, though, he couldn’t maintain the momentum, losing 12-14.
If he’s going to win his first world title, he’ll need to play as well when he has match ball in his favor as he does when it’s against him.
England’s top player, 35-year-old Sheffield native Nick Matthew, is squash’s toughest competitor. He’s also a hero of late bloomers. At the age of 23 he rose into the top 10, but for years he lingered just outside the ranks of the game’s biggest stars—a regular in tournament quarterfinals and semis, but rarely a winner.
His greatest accomplishments didn’t come until he was in his 30s, at a stage where most elite players see their games start to decline. In 2010 he won his first World Championship, then spent all of 2011 as the #1 ranked player, capping the year by repeating as world champion—the first time in 15 years that a player had won back-to-back world titles. Since then he’s shuffled back and forth within the world’s top five, twice retaking the #1 spot, and in 2013 he won a third world championship.
Matthew’s fitness is legendary, and it’s a key to his success. While many of the other top players try to hit winning shots at the first opportunity, Matthew deliberately extends rallies, knowing that long points early on will wear down his opponent’s legs later in the match. It’s a tactic that harkens back to a more attritional style of play prevalent in earlier generations of elite squash, but Matthew adds an aggressive edge to his old-school tactics.
Matthew’s nickname on tour is the Wolf—an acknowledgement of his fierce and focused approach to the game. While every world-class athlete is a competitive animal, Matthew is exceptionally driven. Every match is a fight, and he uses every physical, tactical, and psychological advantage that presents itself.
There’s no one in the game who comes on court wanting to win more than Matthew.
Gregory Gaultier, from Aix-en-Provence, France, is squash’s heartbreak kid. He’s been a World Championship finalist four times, in 2006, 2007, 2011, and 2013, but he’s never managed to win the title. At the age of 32 he’s still playing superb squash, but as the years pass his ultimate goal, the world title, feels a little more elusive.
A key component to success in squash is movement—the ability to get around the court quickly and efficiently, to anticipate shots, and as a result to make your opponent work harder than you do. Gaultier is the game’s master of movement. He’s arguably the fastest player on the tour (Miguel Rodriguez and Tarek Momen are other contenders for that title), but it’s more than speed that makes him such a great mover. When he’s playing his best, he dictates the rhythm of the game. He mixes up the pace of his shots and sends his opponent scurrying around to the four corners of the court. Gaultier calls the tune, while the other player desperately tries to keep up.
When he’s feeling relaxed and confident, Gaultier can make even the best players in the world look helpless against him. He’s had some astounding wins against his rival Nick Matthew, beating him in the final of the 2013 U.S. Open 11-4, 11-5, 11-5, and in the final of the 2014 British Open 11-3, 11-6, 11-2.
But Gaultier often wears his heart on his sleeve, and his psychological battles can make for high drama. His first World Championship final in 2006 was devastating to watch. He won the first two games against the veteran David Palmer and then had four match balls in the fourth game, but he couldn’t pull out the win. Seven years later he tried to reverse the scenario in a gut-wrenching World Championship final against Matthew. He came back from two games down to even the match at 2-2, but in the fifth game he succumbed to exhaustion and was the picture of a broken man, losing 2-11.
More than anyone else, Gaultier has something to prove in Bellevue. If he can come away with the title it will redefine his career. Instead of being the man who lost four times on the biggest stage, he will be a world champion.
by Matthew Lombardi