Players Part 6 : the United Nations of Squash

Matthew Lombardi’s sixth and final preview …

Squash prides itself on the fact that it’s played avidly, and at a high level, all over the world. The 48 players with guaranteed positions in main draw at this year’s World Championships are from 20 countries, and there’s even more diversity in the 64-player qualifying draw that will be fought out at the Pro Club in the days prior to the main event.

Odds are that the eventual world champion will be an Egyptian or European, but the field of players in Bellevue will look like the United Nations General Assembly. You’ll see a diversity of approaches to the game that sometimes reflects the players’ national character and sometimes transcends it.

You’ll also get a look at the past, present, and potential future of squash, with some traditional powers trying to regain their former glory, and some of the best young players coming from unlikely places.

Earlier previews have looked at the tournament’s favorites, the leading players from Egypt, England, and the rest of Europe, and the leading contenders from elsewhere on the globe.

Here’s an overview of the rest of the field.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia has one of the world’s great elite squash traditions. Its pantheon of past stars includes world champions Geoff Hunt, Rodney Martin, Rodney Eyles, and David Palmer, as well as five-time World Open finalist Chris Dittmar.

In 2003 Australia won the World Team Championships, but since then there’s been a drop-off in the Aussies’ performance on the world stage. There hasn’t been an Australian in the top 10 since Palmer’s retirement in 2011.

SH22139The country’s current #1 player is Cameron Pilley, a tall, slender 33-year-old who has been ranked in the top 20 for most of the past seven years. He’s fun to watch because of his agreeable demeanor and his tremendous power—he holds the record for the hardest shot ever timed, registering 177 mph. He faces a tough challenge in the opening round at Bellevue, having drawn #2 seed Nick Matthew.

Pilley fits a classic Aussie mold—he’s laidback, good-natured, and not above ridiculous displays of machismo. His demonstration of hitting prowess, done with the help of his brother Morgan, is the most-watched squash video ever on YouTube. It’s an only-in-Australia kind of thing.

SH22140Another Australian, 28-year-old lefthander Ryan Cuskelly, enters the World Championships playing the best squash of his life. In tournaments this fall he’s knocked off top-10 players Miguel Rodriguez, Karim Abdel Gawad, Marwan Elshorbagy, and Mathieu Castagnet (twice), and earlier this month he reached the semifinals of the Qatar Classic.

He strikes the ball with a severely cocked wrist that harkens back to players of an earlier generation, and he bounds around the court with casual, loose-limbed confidence, establishing a high T position and taking balls early.

Cuskelly is based in the New York area, where he’s coached by Aussie great Rodney Martin and trains sometimes with Ramy Ashour.

SH22141Australians likely to be in the qualifying draw include another Martin protégé, Zac Alexander, as well as London-based Rex Hedrick, a pesky retriever, and Netherlands-based Steve Finitsis, another of the game’s power hitters.

Australia’s South Pacific cousin, New Zealand, also has a long squash tradition. The most famous of course being Ross Norman, who will stay in the books as the Man who stopped Jahangir Khan’s 555 running streak in 1986…

It’s represented in the main draw by a rising talent, 23-year-old Paul Coll, and the well-established midlevel veteran Campbell Grayson, both of whom are ranked just inside the top 50. New Zealand will have another veteran, 31-year-old Martin Knight, and another youngster, 23-year-old Lance Beddoes, in qualifying.

Pakistan and India

Pakistan is historically one of the great squash world powers—by most accounts the greatest. Pakistanis have been top performers throughout the history of the sport, with their preeminence reaching its peak in the 1980s and ‘90s.

SH22142From 1981 to 1986 Jahangir Khan went undefeated, taking five straight World Open titles before losing in the 1986 final to Ross Norman. The next year the extraordinarily smooth-moving Jansher Khan (no relation) took the reins, winning the world title. He’d end up winning it seven more times over the next nine years, losing only to Jahangir in 1988 and Aussie Rodney Martin in 1991. Most debates about the greatest player of all time boil down to one question: who was better, Jahangir or Jansher?

SH22144Since the end of Jansher’s career Pakistani squash hasn’t been able to replicate such achievement. Multiple players have fared well in junior competition, but the early promise hasn’t led to prominence at the senior level. The national squash organization’s motto is “Revive the Legacy.” It’s an ongoing effort.

The latest prospect, and the only Pakistani in this year’s World Championship main draw, is 21-year-old Nasir Iqbal, a slight and speedy figures who’s currently ranked #44 in the world. Likely Pakistani representatives in qualifying are Farhan Zaman and Danish Atlas Khan (Jansher’s nephew).

SH22150India doesn’t have the squash legacy of its neighbor to the north, but it’s having more success in the present day thanks to the strong play of 29-year-old, #17-ranked Saurav Ghosal. He’s been a fixture in the top 20 for the past three years, thanks largely to his tremendous speed—he rivals Miguel Rodriguez and Tarek Momen for the title of fleetest player on the tour.

The Indian contingent also includes possible qualifiers Mahesh Mangaonkar (age 21, rank 57) and Harinder Pal Sandu (age 26, rank 71).

South and Central America

Colombian world #5 Miguel Angel Rodriguez has taken Latin American squash to new heights, but his accomplishments may be ultimately be eclipsed by those of 18-year-old Peruvian Diego Elias.

SH22151In 2014 Elias became the first non-Egyptian in over a decade to win the World Junior Championships, and he retained the title this summer. Both years he displayed utter domination, not losing a single game over the course of 12 matches.

Elias is a tall, powerful player with a commanding presence on court. He shows impressive composure as he patiently, clinically takes apart his opponents. He’s currently ranked #40 and opens the World Championships against English veteran Adrian Grant, a match that should be an interesting study in contrasts. No matter how he fares this year, he’s likely to spend the next decade fighting with his Egyptian peers for a position at the top of the rankings.

SH22146The other Latin American representatives in Bellevue will be Mexican: Cesar Salazar (age 27, rank 28) and Alfredo Avila (age 24, rank 38) are both dangerous opponents in the main draw. Avila had a remarkable run earlier this year at the Colombia Open, beating four top-20 players to win the title, but he has the bad luck of drawing world #1 Mohamed Elshorbagy in the first round. Salazar’s twin brother, Arturo Salazar, is expected to compete in qualifying, as is 32-year-old Eric Galvez, a flashy presence usually adored in a colorful bandana and hoop earrings when he plays.

North America

SH22135The only U.S. player in the main draw is the wild-card entry, 31-year-old Portland native Julian Illingworth. He no longer competes regularly on the tour but in 2012 reached a ranking of #24, the best ever for an American. He’s a former college player, as are Todd Harrity (age 25, rank 61), the reigning U.S. national champion, and Chris Hanson (age 24, rank 84). They’ll both be in qualifying, joined by America’s top-ranked player, New Yorker Chris Gordon (age 29, rank 58).

SH22147Canadian squash will forever bear the imprint of Jonathon Power, the charismatic World Open champion who retired in 2006 while holding the #1 ranking. This year there are no Canadians in the main draw, but gadfly Shawn Delierre (age 33, rank 56), the current Canadian national champion, and fellow Canuck Andrew Schnell (age 24, rank 76) will be in qualifying.

The Rest of the World

SH22138The top rankings are peppered with additional nationalities spanning the globe. Africans in the main draw, along with Stephen Coppinger, are Alister Walker (age 33, rank 26), a gifted but mercurial veteran who represents his native Botswana after having represented England for a number of years, and now lives in New York, and feisty Shaun Le Roux (rank 47, age 29), who represents South Africa but lives in England.

SH22148Within Asia, Malaysia is notable for being home to the most accomplished female squash player of all time, eight-time world champion Nicol David, and it’s had success on the men’s side as well, with retired players Ong Beng Hee and Azlan Iskandar both reaching the top 10.

Its current #1, Nafiizwan Adnan (rank 31, age 29), is the country’s sole entry in the main draw, but Ivan Yuen (rank 65, age 25) and Asyraf Azan (rank 77, age 27) will try to come through qualifying to join him.

There are other top players who represent countries you wouldn’t normally think of as squash hotbeds. Abdulla Al Tamimi (rank 74, age 20) of Qatar, James Huang (rank 92, age 30) of Taipei, Chris Binnie (rank 93, age 26) of Jamaica, and Joe Chapman (rank 104, age 25) of the British Virgin Islands all play at a high enough level to merit a spot in the World Championships qualifying.


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