The European Challengers

In part four of his player profiles,
Matthew Lombardi looks at the challenge of the European players…

For as long as the game has been played, England has been the dominant power in European squash  (its players in this year’s World Championship are profiled here).

15ET9068For the past decade, though, the French have been nipping at the Englishmen’s heels, and earlier this year, for the first time ever, they beat England in the final of the European Team Championships, ending a 22-year run of English victories.

That French win was a bit of an anomaly—England’s top player, Nick Matthew, was out injured—but there’s no question that France has Europe’s second strongest contingent of elite players, and they have a well run national program, led by coach Renan Lavigne [the 2012 World Over 35 Champion, centred in the team shot]. Look for him on the sidelines in Bellevue, muttering pointers to the French players between games.

Beyond that, the top Europeans tend to be lone wolves—great individual talents who have risen above the skill level of their countrymen. Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands all have one such player who has found a place among the squash elite. The European representation at the World Championship will also include Scotland and Finland, each of which has a pair of players who rank among the top 60.

Europeans in the 2015 World Championship

The crown for top continental European player sits firmly on the head of Frenchman Gregory Gaultier (profiled here), but there’s a worthy second to the throne in Simon Rösner, who over the past year has become a fixture in the top 10.

SH21047At 6’3” and 195 pounds, Rösner is a strapping figure who brings a distinctly German presence to the game. As he swings at the ball with his unique chopping stroke it’s not hard to picture him as a woodsman, clad in lederhosen and a feathered cap, wandering a Bavarian forest. At 28 years of age he’s already nine-time German national champion, and he’s the highest ranked German in the history of the game.

Like most of the bigger players on the tour, Rösner puts his strength to good use—he can make the glass walls rattle with his powerful shots. But like all of the elite players he has a multidimensional game, and what’s most impressive about him are the skills you wouldn’t necessarily expect. He glides around the court like he’s on roller skates, and he has precise touch at the front of the court, one of the key talents that distinguish the truly exceptional players from the very good ones.

As of September Rösner is the #7 player in the world, but he has never won a match against any of the top four. He’s a great talent, but to be a genuine contender for the World Championship he will need to raise his play to new heights this fall.

SH21056The final European in the current top 10 is 28-year-old Frenchman Mathieu Castagnet. His ascent in the rankings is one of squash’s quiet surprises. He’s been on the PSA tour for a decade, but he entered the top 30 for the first time just two years ago. His steady rise since then has been the product of his composure and determination—two characteristics that come through on the court.

Castagnet’s game is one of the best demonstrations of what it means in squash to “absorb pressure.” During many points his opponent will hit multiple near-winners, which Castagnet will retrieve, pushing the opponent to the back of the court and reestablishing equilibrium in the rally.

He’s essentially putting a French accent on the traditional English style of play, and he pulls it off with a lot of class. While he doesn’t have flashy racquet skills he’s fast, fit, and focused. He’s also admirably mature. You’ll never see him lose his temper, and in the rare case that he questions a referee’s call, chances are that he has good reason to. Both in his style of play and his demeanor he bears some resemblance to Peter Nicol, one of the greats of the previous generation.

SH21052The top Spaniard is 32-year-old Borja Golan. He’s been ranked in the top 20 for most of the past eight years, and came back from a major knee injury in 2009 to rise as high as #5. Like Castagnet he’s a nimble retriever, but he takes a more aggressive approach to the game. He likes to draw his opponent to the front of the court with soft drops and boasts, the ricocheting sidewall shot, which he uses more frequently than any other top player.

Golan is an interesting case study in the psychology of the game. While performance often suffers when a player gets angry or frustrated, Golan has a knack for what you might call “restrained fury.” He’s frequently unhappy with a referee’s call or some other aspect of a match, but instead of distracting him, his anger seems to heighten his focus and raise the level of his play.

Though Golan has never won one of the major tournaments, he’s always a challenge for the top players. In both the 2012 British Open and the 2014 World Championship he won the first two games in matches against Ramy Ashour, forcing the Egyptian star to make brilliant comebacks.

SH21054Farther down in the rankings, in the high 20s and low 30s, is a cluster of European talent. Switzerland’s Nicolas Müller, age 26, and France’s Gregoire Marche, 25, are two of Europe’s best hopes to counter the strong Egyptian contingent in the mid-20s age group.

SH21077Tall and lean Müller has had more success so far, mixing power and patience to reach as high as #17 in the rankings at the end of last year. Marche is a super-quick counterattacker with a skillset similar to Egyptian speedster Tarek Momen, but he sometimes struggles to keep his focus in high-pressure matches.

SH21058Ranked near Müller and Marche is 32-year-old lefthander Laurens Jan Anjema, the most accomplished Dutch player. He entered the top 20 in 2007 and stayed there for seven years, spending most of 2012 at a career-high #9. A foot injury sidelined him last fall, requiring surgery in November, and it’s been a slow road back, but if he can regain his old form he’ll be a tough hurdle for the higher ranked players in Bellevue. (His training routine is the subject of one of the most stylish videos you’ll see about squash.)

Scotland’s Alan Clyne is also ranked in the same range. He’s a tough grinder who at the age of 29 is playing the best squash of his career, reaching the finals of two midlevel events earlier this year and putting up a good fight in a losing effort against Gregory Gaultier at September’s British Grand Prix.

Younger Europeans who will be hoping to make an impression at the World Championship are Frenchman Lucas Serme, German Raphael Kandra, and Scotsman Greg Lobban, all of whom are under 25 years of age and ranked in the top 50.

Finland will be represented by veteran Olli Tuominen, a fit 36-year-old who’s spent half his life on the PSA tour and has been ranked in the top 50 for the past 16 years, and his heir to the Finnish squash crown, svelte 24-year-old Henrik Mustonen.

 

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