THE see-saw battle at the top of the world rankings took another twist in Richmond on Thursday night, after quarter-final success in the North American Open guaranteed a return to the world No 1 spot for Yorkshire’s James Willstrop.
The 28-year-old achieved a lifetime ambition at the end of last year, when three successive tournament challenges saw him succeed Nick Matthew at the top of the PSA Tour rankings, the Sheffield-born 31-year-old having held the position throughout 2011.
But after a two-month absence through injury, Matthew stormed back to the top of the rankings at the beginning of this month following his victory over Willstrop in the Tournament of Champions at New York’s Grand Central Terminus.
However, Matthew’s return to the top was to last just one month this time around, once the withdrawal of Willstrop’s quarter-final opponent, Amr Shabana, ensured a last four place in Virginia for the top seed from Leeds, essentially garnering him enough ranking points to head the world list from the beginning of March.
Willstrop had taken the first game 11-5 and was 2-0 up in the second when Egyptian Shabana was forced to retire just 12 minutes into the game.
He said: “It’s great news to be back on top - but I would find it very difficult to celebrate because nobody wants to win a match that way.”
Willstrop will now meet third seed Gregory Gaultier, who defeated Egyptian qualifier Karim Abdel Gawad 11-6, 11-2, 11-9 in 39 minutes.
Matthew, who also beat Willstrop in the non-ranking British Nationals final earlier this month, took one step closer to a third final meeting with his chief rival by defeating Germany’s Simon Rosner 11-7, 11-6, 9-11, 11-6 in his quarter-final, with the Yorkshireman being forced to stay on court for over an hour for the second time this week.
Waiting for him in the last four, however, is Egypt’s Ramy Ashour, back from a three-month injury lay-off and looking to be back to something like his best form. If he stays fit, Ashour will have a big say in the ranking race in the coming months and will be keen to prove a point against Matthew, the man who took his world No 1 ranking from him in January 2011.
Ashour - who reached the semi-finals after his toughest test of the week so far when defeating fellow Egyptian Karim Darwish in just under an hour - also won his last meeting against Matthew when the pair contested the final of the British Grand Prix in Manchester last September.
Matthew acknowledged he would have to improve his game if he were to gain revenge over Ashour for that defeat at the National Squash Centre and set up another mouthwatering showdown with Willstrop.
“I started well in those first two games (against Rosner), but I need to step up another notch against Ramy,” said Matthew, who has defeated Ashour in the last two finals in Richmond, after losing to him at the same stage in 2009.
“He is playing very well this week. It will be strange playing him in the semis after meeting him in the past three finals (here).”
Willstrop and Gaultier will be on court on Friday night, around 11pm UK time, with Matthew and Ashour scheduled to start their game around an hour or so later.
The games can be viewed live o0n the internet, through paid subscription, at http://www.psasquashtv.com/
 James Willstrop (ENG) bt  Amr Shabana (EGY) 11-5, 2-0 ret. (12m)
 Gregory Gaultier (FRA) bt [Q] Karim Abdel Gawad (EGY) 11-6, 11-2, 11-9 (39m)
 Ramy Ashour (EGY) bt  Karim Darwish (EGY) 12-10, 8-11, 11-5, 11-3 (56m)
 Nick Matthew (ENG) bt Simon Rosner (GER) 11-7, 11-6, 9-11, 11-6 (63m).