JAMES Willstrop opens his Qatar Classic campaign on Monday firmly believing he can lift the title for a second time, writes Phil Harrison.
But the 28-year-old Yorkshire man - who won the title back in 2005 - accepts he is going to have to do it the hard way by overcoming the world’s top two players.
His long-standing rivalry with fellow Yorkshireman Nick Matthew - the current world No 1 - is well-documented, with several memorable clashes between the two in recent years.
With Matthew top-seeded in Doha, it’s expected for the 31-year-old from Sheffield to reach the final. But if Willstrop is going to meet him there on Friday he knows he will have to overcome the ‘special’ talent that is Ramy Ashour, the world No 2 from Egypt.
Seeded fourth for the tournament, Willstrop plays in the first round today against Egyptian qualifier Mohammed Abbas and, should everything go according to seedings, can expect to meet former world No 1 Ashour in the semi-finals.
Willstrop’s record against the Egyptian isn’t the most promising, but he has beaten him before, most notably in the final of the Tournament of Champions in New York last year.
But Ashour has held the upper-hand since and, despite being second in the world rankings, has also got the better of Matthew on each of the last three occasions the two have met.
Willstrop, himself regarded as one of the more stylish players on the world tour, has nothing but admiration for his Egyptian rival who, at the age of 24 could go on to dominate the men’s game for years to come.
“He (Ashour) is a really special talent,” said Willstrop. “He is a genius with a squash racket in his hand and one of the best sportsmen I’ve ever seen.
“He has taken the game to a new level but, I think he’s brought everyone along with him as well.
“That’s not to say he’s unbeatable because there are a handful of people who are capable of beating him - I’ve beaten him in the past.”
Willstrop’s last Tour success came courtesy of that win New York victory over Ashour in January last year and, despite only one semi-final appearance in three attempts this year, the world No 4 enters the latest event in a positive frame of mind.
“This is one of the better tournaments on the tour and I always feel comfortable playing in this event,” he added.
“The strength of the men’s game at the minute means that we can all lose to anybody at this level.
“I think I can win tournaments like this, I’ve proved it before. But I don’t want to get carried away - I just need to concentrate on each match as it comes along.”
Matthew made it through to the second round in Doha after overcoming Pakistan’s Aamir Atlas Khan 11-9, 11-4, 11-4 on Sunday afternoon. He will now meet Indian qualifier Siddarth Schude in Tuesday’s second round.
Harrogate’s world No 2, Jenny Duncalf, begins her campaign in the women’s draw against German qualifier Sian Wall on Monday afternoon.