Matthew Lombardi continues his look at the contenders for the World Title in Bellevue – Part Five …
Egypt and Europe, led by England, will have a dominant presence at this year’s World Championships. Nine out of the top 10 players in the world and 15 out of the top 20 come from one of those two groups (the 14th best Egyptian player ranks higher than the top American.)
That doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t trying, and in some cases having impressive success. Players from South America, Africa, and Asia will have significant roles in the drama in Bellevue.
Best of the Rest
The top three players in the world outside of Europe and Egypt hail from Colombia, Hong Kong, and South Africa, but they share one characteristic in common: they’re all coached by David Palmer, the Aussie former world #1 and two-time World Open champion.
Palmer, nicknamed the Marine on tour, retired from competition in 2011 and now runs a squash academy in Orlando, Florida. If his current pupils are any indication, he has a talent for instilling in others the physical and mental discipline that were the hallmarks of his own game.
Twenty-nine-year-old Colombian Miguel Angel Rodriguez is Palmer’s star student and one of the most exciting players on the PSA tour. His trademarks are speed and dexterity: he uses quick feet and hands to retrieve shots no one else could touch, and he’s not reluctant to get airborne in the process. If he weren’t a pro squash player he could have a stellar career as an acrobat.
His high-energy game has made him a favorite with fans and photographers from his earliest days on tour, but it took him eight years to enter the top 20 in the world, a milestone that coincided with his joining forces with Palmer. He rose into the top 10 for the first time in January of this year and currently is the #5 player in the world.
Where once he scampered around court, relying on sheer speed to keep him in points, he’s now a more efficient mover and clever tactician, dictating the pace of play and finishing points with more accuracy and confidence than he earlier in his career.
His most impressive performance to date was this January at the Tournament of Champions in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, where he beat the Englishman Peter Barker in a grueling five-game, two-hour match and followed with the biggest victory of his career, a five-game win over French star Gregory Gaultier. His exceptional year has also included wins at the Motor City Open and Pan American Games and a semifinal appearance at the British Open.
Rodriguez is slated to play Portland-based Julian Illingworth in the first-round of the World Championships. The lone American in the main draw will need to lace his shoes up tight and be ready to run.
Rodriquez’s frequent training partner is 31-year-old South African Stephen Coppinger, a fellow Palmer disciple. On court the two are near opposites—at 6’3”, Coppinger stands eight inches taller than Rodriguez, and he plays with a dogged, methodical style built on a foundation of precise length hitting.
While their games are different, the career paths of Rodriguez and Coppinger share notable traits in common. They both come from parts of the world that aren’t known for developing world-class squash players, and they both spent years battling it out in the lower ranks before breaking through to join the game’s elite.
Coppinger hasn’t risen quite as far as Rodriguez—he’s currently ranked #15—but his improvement over the past couple of years seems even more improbable. While Rodriguez is blessed with extraordinary speed and reflexes, Coppinger’s gifts are less conspicuous. He has a compact swing that looks self-taught, he likes to play at a medium pace, and he shuffles around the court using short steps that are more efficient than graceful.
But his sneaky talent, combined with his determined, sportsmanlike demeanor on court, makes him very fun to watch. It’s a surprise to casual observers when he knocks off more flashy opponents—as he did in this October’s U.S. Open with a win over Rodriguez. He’ll open in the World Championships against Chris Simpson, a methodical Englishman, in what could be one of the most tightly contested first-round matches.
The third player in the world’s top 15 who gets guidance from Palmer is 27-year-old Max Lee of Hong Kong. Lee is quick around the court and has an ideal body type for squash—strong but whip thin, like English star Nick Matthew. Palmer’s training has concentrated on instilling in him some other Matthew-like characteristics—improved fitness and sharper mental focus.
The work started paying dividends in 2014, when Lee entered the top 30 for the first time while notching wins against Karim Darwish, Borja Golan, and Karim Abdel Gawad and taking Amr Shabana to five games in a tightly contested U.S. Open match. He ended the year leapfrogging to a #16 ranking.
In 2015 Lee has had some major, confidence-building wins, beating Omar Mosaad early in the year, shocking world #1 Mohamed Elshorbagy in the first round of September’s China Open, and later that month taking the tournament title at the Macau Open, knocking off three more elite Egyptians, Marwan Elshorbagy, Tarek Momen, and Fares Dessouki, in the process.
The run of success has moved him up to the #13 ranking, but he’s also had a few lapses along the way, most notably going down in the first round of the U.S. Open to Scottish qualifier Greg Lobban. He’s drawn Lobban again in the first round of the World Championships. You can bet Palmer will have him primed for revenge.
Another Palmer pupil to keep an eye on is 25-year-old Leo Au, also a Hong Kong native. In October Au entered the top 30 for the first time after a remarkable run at the China Open where he defeated former world #1 James Willstrop and current top-10 players Simon Rösner and Mathieu Castagnet on his way to the semifinals.
At 5’5” he’s a diminutive figure on court, with a game built on persistent retrieving. Occasionally, though, he shows flashes of the bold shot-making that’s the trademark of his sister, Annie Au, one of the top players on the women’s tour. His opening round match at the World Champs pits him against the mercurial Marwan Elshorbagy.