James Willstrop: World squash final worthy of much wider sporting audience

2014 Men's World Squash Champion Ramy Ashour. PIC: PSA.

2014 Men's World Squash Champion Ramy Ashour. PIC: PSA.

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I’M APPEALING to those reading this who haven’t watched or played the game of squash. Now is the time to scratch below the surface. The squash fraternity is still digesting a world championship final played last Friday in Qatar between Mohamed El Shorbagy and Ramy Ashour.

I should go back to the start. El Shorbagy came in to the event leaving trails of dust all about him. World number one, winner of Hong Kong and US Opens recently, he was the man to beat. Greg Gaultier was seeded one, ranked one at the time of the draw, and Nick Matthew was the defending champion. Amr Shabana was playing confidently and reached the final of the US Open. Ashour was in no man’s land with long-term injury worries, and not having competed since May.

The top few were braced to play well with Ashour the significant doubt.

Borja Golan pushed him to five in the quarters. Gaultier and El Shorbagy took victories over Cameron Pilley and Stephen Coppinger and Matthew beat Shabana in a heavyweight match-up.

It left us with a Gaultier v Ashour and El Shorbagy v Matthew semi-final line-up.

Ashour was unscathed after his matches and that was good enough for us. With his inimitable style and madcap temperament he pushes the sport in all sorts of new directions but his body has often let him down.

It was difficult to bet against Gaultier, at the prime of his career, match sharp and in form.

Ashour was accurate and tested the legs of Gaultier during a first game lasting 35 minutes. It went to the Egyptian 17-15 and took the sting out of the Frenchman. At two down Gaultier mounted a spirited mini comeback and Ashour suddenly couldn’t strike the ball with any pace, often grimacing. He managed to adapt and win 3-0.

On the other side of the draw the egos of Matthew and El Shorbagy were out on the table, or should I say on good old Twitter.

El Shorbagy, 23 years old and recently the new number one in the world, had seemingly begun to think he was Mohammed Ali. Without quite the same wit, he offered some interesting comments the night before. Matthew tends to walk around in between games and so El Shorbagy’s advice to the Englishman was to sit down and rest because he was intending to play at a pace that Matthew wouldn’t cope with. Interesting move, and Matthew was slightly more diplomatic yet couldn’t resist having his say.

El Shorbagy won the match in three games.

And the final? Whatever your leanings towards squash – good, bad, indifferent – this match would be a good place to start. Go to psasquashtv.com and download it. This match alone is worth the registration fee.

The first game was a mess: errors all over the place but no less interesting for it. At the business end sparks started to fly, and Ashour pipped it. After seeing his doctor he returned to the court with the weight of the world on his shoulders, or more specifically his racket arm. He was again back to playing pat-ball, not hitting through the swing. Everyone was hoping that not another injury was to surface then and there.

El Shorbagy took control of the middle stretch of the match to forge ahead 2-1. Ashour by the end of the third had started to hit the ball, and in the fourth things started to take off.

Ashour came alive, and hardly relinquished the lead throughout, winning the game well, playing some staggering shots, 11-5.

The fifth was the game of games. An outrageous rally unravelled at 6-5, a minute and a half of sport to make the heart skip beats, and the sort of snapshot that can inspire generations. This sort of thing should be part of any good National Curriculum: artistic, athletic, agile and ferocious competition, played in a good spirit. It seemed to leave El Shorbagy in trouble and almost as quick as you could think, Ashour hit another beauty at 7-5, then was leading 10-5. All over?

Not even nearly. A few minutes later El Shorbagy had turned the whole thing upside down and found himself levelling at 10-10.

Suddenly it was difficult to see how Ashour was going to win a rally. An amazing momentum change.

The younger Egyptian had a match ball at 12-11 but that was his chance. On his seventh match ball Ashour finished what had become an ordeal to watch, even for a neutral, such was the intensity and brilliance. Joey Barrington and co-commentator Paul Johnson were standing up in the box during the fifth, as was I, grimacing and trying to remain composed, in Waterstone’s cafe.

There will not be a sporting contest that will beat this one for excitement and standard this year, possibly this decade, dare I say it this century. To compare it to a classic film, it had all the twists, turns and sub-text of a perfectly crafted screenplay, and the acting was superlative.

Do not miss it.

To watch highlights of the World Squash Championships final between Ashour and Elshorbagy go HERE

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