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Jonah Barrington

The Jonah Barrington Column: May 2022

One of the sport’s greatest thinkers and a pioneer for the professional game, Jonah Barrington offers his thoughts on all of squash's biggest talking points in a new monthly column – written exclusively for the PSA World Tour website.

In this month’s column, Jonah discusses the PSA World Championships, the incredible performances of Ali Farag and Nour El Sherbini, as well as THAT Rob Owen interview.

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By Jonah Barrington

I must confess to being mesmerised by the women’s game and I have been for some years now. The 2022 PSA World Championships have continued that process, while they gave us an even clearer picture of the strength of the female game.

The remarkable Nour El Tayeb returned to the world-class elite and her baby must be very proud of her, and I don’t mean husband Ali [Farag]!

There is now a clutch of so many young players, all potential contenders, and the big question is who really does have the love, hunger, and undiluted passion to make the ultimate sacrifices to fulfil their dreams?

To the champion: I have already said what I think of Nour El Sherbini and my admiration of all her numerous qualities, she is simply ‘The Sherbini’!

I thought that Lee Drew, in a recent Squash Player Magazine, beamed in on her acute and calm awareness in match play, her ability to deal with a multitude of situations and adapt to them, her skill in dealing with a certain pattern of play. Nour has indeed a special kind of squash intelligence.

In the final she was relatively uncomfortable in terms of consistency, as indeed was her opponent Nouran Gohar, but at a time when I felt Nouran was going to increasingly dominate, Nour changed the pattern and essentially never let go.

Her reading of what is going on and ability to introduce more holds, increase the pace and break up the rhythm is something else and made her more than worthy of this, her sixth PSA World Championship.

Nour El Sherbini (fore) takes on Nouran Gohar

Simply put, Nour is, in my opinion, both the greatest player of this generation and, as this World Championship has proven, and again this in my opinion, the greatest women’s player of all time.

There have been many great champions before her, not least Nicol David, who dominated a generation almost like no other and the unforgettable Raneem El Welily, who just happened to be my favourite player!

But Sherbini is unbelievably difficult to play, her ability to play shots from different positions and tie players up is very special and indeed almost unique.

As for Gohar, well Nouran became increasingly uncomfortable during the course of the final after a bright start.

She is still in the process of adapting and creating things, developing aspects of her game and while that is fantastic in itself, there has to be a tricky, almost difficult period to make these adjustments.

For a player who has, from a very young age, had a style of play so seriously based on robotic driving length which has been enormously successful and has taken her to the top of the world rankings, that has been fantastic in itself.

We must also remember that Nouran, as World No.1, was the one under pressure to deliver and my feeling remotely, from thousands of miles away, was that there was a level of nervousness which created a series of problems, physical mental and technical.

Yet I’m talking about a great world-class player who is constantly in overdrive and she will improve these elements and isn’t going away for a long time!

Nouran Gohar

For me, Nour El Tayeb was, almost, the story of the championships on the women’s side.

I knew it was going to be sooner rather than later that she returned to the very top of the game and Nour is a further reminder to the ever-growing band of pretenders that a glimpse of a breakthrough will not cut the mustard unless it is fortified by a love and passion for the sport and an overriding competitive hunger to achieve.

But of one thing we can be sure and that is that Nour El Tayeb was world-class before her baby and is undoubtedly world-class after!

Nour and Hania El Hammamy played out a remarkable semi-final, with a hugely high level of fascinating qualities and Hania will be bitterly disappointed to have lost.

I live the game at a distance and through TV, but it did seem to me that she was very nervous in round two, when she played Japan’s Satomi Watanabe, who was yet another to make a significant impression, and she would have known what a redoubtable competitor Nour El Tayeb is.

Hammamy epitomises hunger to achieve and be the big winner. On edge initially, in the World Championships she was, by the quarters, showing immeasurable all-round qualities.

[They are] Her ball control, wonderful athleticism, and a mentality taking her attacking and most impressive defensive game to world-class levels while she is one of the all-time great movers.

Yet in that epic quarter-final, Hania was edgy early on and had to use all her mental and physical qualities to battle, stay in the match and to break back in the third. But nervousness at such a level of competitive fury takes its toll and the damage can suddenly abort those practiced processes.

Hania must remember where she is, very near the top of Everest but now there is another challenge for the top regardless of current ranking.

Hania El Hammamy

Turning to the other ladies’ semi-finalist: Amanda Sobhy had a terrific tournament in reaching the last four and really tested Nouran Gohar to the very end while keeping the Star-Spangled Banner flying proudly!

I would go so far as to say this was the best I had seen Amanda play since lockdown and she was very much ‘up for it’ as they say! It was also nice to see her get a bit of support from the Egyptian fans which is more than her due given she is a dual US and Egyptian passport holder.

Given what she has had to come back from with that horrific Achilles injury, Amanda is quite simply an inspiration.

Of those attempting to make the breakthrough, Georgina Kennedy is clearly making progress and her early advantage was compromised by a world-class performance from an initially nervy Hania El Hammamy in their third-round encounter.

But the Englishwoman will undoubtedly bridge the gap.

Meanwhile, well done to her compatriot, SJ Perry – nobody likes playing her!

Further rising stars in Rowan Elaraby and Nada Abbas are now right there and there are other young Egyptian players who are not far behind them.

The next year will be fascinating.

Now let us turn our attention to the men’s championship.

I am very fond of Robert Owen – he was with me as a young teenager, he is an excellent coach, there is no better coach in the UK and for some reason there seems to be very little acknowledgement of that from England Squash.

Paul Coll in action

Yet, he was interviewed before the PSA World Championships and made, in my opinion, some very ill-judged comments about Paul Coll and his main rivals, who are of course primarily Egyptian.

This fantastic event was in the heart of the Lion’s Den and there was inevitably going to be extra pressure on the Kiwi to deliver. What Robert said can be open to considerable debate, but it was without a doubt even more motivation for those deadly enemies on the court to bring Paul down.

In the quarter-finals, Tarek Momen played one of the most remarkable matches in his career against Paul and was rather unlucky to lose after suffering one or two rather debatable refereeing decisions late on.

Mohamed [ElShorbagy] has shown he must still never be underestimated and regardless of recent difficulties, is one of the great squash players. Bolstered by the knowledge, and on-site support of the mighty French General [new coach Gregory Gaultier], he was even more driven to go to the well at least one more time.

Meanwhile, both Ali Farag and Mostafa Asal would have been, in their different ways, going for the throat.

So, a nervous Paul Coll was evident and the predators could smell it and were very primed to pounce!

In my opinion, all too often both players and coaches are deceived by a slide in form and energy at the end of an encounter but forget what it takes out of you on the way to breaking the enemy.

Paul was not at his best in the semis. Tarek had almost completed the job on his own, but regardless of super conditioning and a day’s rest, there was residual damage and the small signs were evident in less fluent mobility and balance, although only Paul knows what may have been slightly off kilter.

‘The Beast’ used his regained confidence, and sustained anger at what would have struck him as a summarily, even disdainful dismissal of his stunning career, to forge a game that he would proffer to the death.

Ali and Mostafa not only went to war in their very different ways but tested each other to the limit and also the referees, with Jason Foster in particular standing strong and decisive under such pressures.

Ali is a natural gentleman on court and Malcolm Willstrop will endorse that happily from above!

2021-22 PSA World Champions Ali Farag (left) and Nour El Sherbini (right)

While on the other hand, Mostafa is an unrelenting cage fighter who will have to, with experience, learn to observe certain boundaries of conduct. Having said that, he is an amazing player with a considerable skill set, brutal power and a delicate touch and such overt athleticism.

Their match swung on a pendulum with Mostafa’s army of supporting youngsters almost in the court with him, and this was another gladiatorial epic in such a historical setting that yet again sets squash so starkly apart from so many superficial Olympic pursuits.

They too had Paul in their sights, but now that is for another day and it was Ali who lived to fight another final.

The World Championship final was indeed a very good final but not quite a classic and that is because both players had, not surprisingly, scar tissue from their respective semis.

Mohamed was never going to fully recover from the efforts of the day before. He had, in his semi with Paul, already started to run out of fuel and more credit to him because of that, while Ali’s match was unbelievably demanding in terms of work rate and mental strife.

So you had to expect there were going to be difficulties. Mohamed needed to win the first game, and he did, but at the same time he played with more calculation and obviously with a game plan which the ‘French General’ would have endorsed and even suggested. ElShorbagy’s ball control was such that Ali wasn’t able to weave the web that diminishes the energy and confidence of opponents.

So much so that on a number of occasions Mohamed looked like he might already have gone to the well for the last time, yet his ability to maintain the necessary levels of accuracy, and the brilliant straight short work on the backhand side, taking the ball in and also counter dropping, kept him alive and still dangerous.

With Ali unable to generate the same economy of movement that we take for granted, it made for a contest that clearly delighted the audience.

Indeed, Mohamed was very close to home but having to go increasingly into a risky area which could have won him the World Championship, but that had to happen in the fourth game as he was already running on fumes.

Unless Ali too had a serious relapse in the fifth, and anything is possible in this game, then there was only going to be one winner.

Yet now Ali is a three-time winner of the World Championship and he, like his rival, is one of the great players of his generation and will also now be considered as one of the great players in the history of squash.

In making mention of the other challengers, Diego Elias, also criticised in ‘that [Rob Owen] article,’ showed his qualities in a terrific encounter with Asal in the quarters. Diego is so important for the tour and might well enjoy taking on Mostafa in front of his home crowd in Peru.

Mohamed ElShorbagy (right) with coach and former contemporary Gregory Gaultier

From an English perspective, I was pleased to see Patrick Rooney showing his burgeoning promise in the first round against Diego.

While both Youssef Ibrahim and Karim Abdel Gawad were carrying injuries, Youssef has star quality in the making, but Karim’s is a golden talent that simply has been unable to flourish so long, and I can only hope he can find an answer to his problem.

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