FITTINGLY, the first big ranking tournament final of the squash year will feature the top two players in the world - both from Yorkshire.
Recently-crowned world No 1 James Willstrop, from Leeds and the man he replaced at the top of the tree, Sheffield’s Nick Matthew, both negotiated their way through to meet in a winner-takes-all finale of the Tournament of Champions in the spectacularly unique surroundings of New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
The Yorkshiremen have long been rivals, producing a number of thrilling encounters in recent years - most notably a wonderfully fiesty British Open final back in 2009.
But Thursday night’s showdown amidst the hustle-bustle of the Big Apple’s world-famous train station will have more riding on it than before as, not only will the first PSA World Super Series title of the year be at stake but also that coveted world No1 ranking - just a month after Willstrop took it from Matthew, who had ruled the world for the previous 12 months until injury struck in November.
The crowd are set for an intriguing battle, with Willstrop clearly the man in form, having won the last three ranking events of 2011 and having dispatched of semi-final opponent and fellow Englishman Daryl Selby - who appeared hampered by some kind of injury - in just 25 minutes.
Matthew was hit by an adductor injury during last year’s Kuwait Cup - subsequently won by Willstrop - and endured a more arduous run to the final, being pushed all the way for 75 minutes by France’s Gregory Gaultier in the other semi-final clash before the 31-year-old Sheffield-born player prevailed 11-8, 11-9, 9-11, 11-4.
That may prove significant when the two meet later today, with Willstrop presumably the fresher of the two. But Matthew holds a significant advantage of his own going into the encounter having won the last 12 matches between the pair going back to December 2007.
Both players have looked in fine form all week, with Willstrop admitting the wish to retain his newly-acquired ranking position beyond one month would only add to his determination going into the mouth-watering clash.
“It’s a motivator, certainly,” said Willstrop, playing in his favourite event on the world tour, something helped by the fact he won it two years ago. “But when you get to play in front of 500 people for the Tournament of Champions title, what more do you need?”
Matthew acknowledged the difficulty he had in getting to the final and believes he has one more big game in him before both players head home to prepare for the British National Championships in Manchester on February 5.
“It was a very tough cat-and-mouse game out there,” he said. “I’d certainly like to have my picture be added to the gallery of champions here. I just need one more massive push tomorrow.”
The match is scheduled to take place at 7.30pm (around 12.30am UK time). Disappointingly, despite a wealth of satellite sport-only paid-for channels being available in the UK, the only way to watch the match live will be via the internet.