By RJ Mitchell
Ross Norman has backed Paul Coll to end his season on a high at this week’s CIB World Tour Finals and then come back from the two month off season even stronger.
The 30-year-old had looked set to dominate the final furlong of a demanding season after ascending to World No.1 status, then completing an imperious defence of his British Open title in April to become the first male since Jahangir Khan to claim the game’s oldest major without dropping a single game.
Yet that all-conquering victory has proven to be the high-watermark of the Kiwi’s campaign and there have followed a string of disappointing defeats that have seen Ali Farag wrestle the No.1 ranking back from Coll. At the PSA World Championships Coll lost out at the semi-final stage 3-2 to Mohamed ElShorbagy in a fractious affair, one in which his efforts were undermined by a gruelling 122-minute quarter-final with Tarek Momen.
Although Coll made the final in El Gouna, he was comprehensively out-played by Mostafa Asal, who reversed his 3-0 British Open semi-final defeat by the New Zealander in front of an enraptured Egyptian home crowd. Finally, a semi-final defeat by Coll’s best mate on tour Diego Elias at the Necker Mauritius Open saw a an out of sorts Coll warned for racket abuse in the second game of a flat-lining 3-0 loss to the Peruvian Puma en route to his victory on the Indian Ocean island nation.
Coll has been drawn in Group B at the CIB PSA World Tour Finals along with Asal, Joel Makin and facing Tarek Momen in his opening match on Tuesday at Cairo’s spectacular the Mall of Arabia. Norman, the man who produced the single most revered victory in the history of squash, when he stopped Jahangir Khan’s 555-match winning streak to win the 1986 World Open at the Palais des Sports in Toulouse, has mounted a staunch defence of his fellow Kiwi.
“Maybe Paul’s results have not been what he would have wanted but the one thing with Paul Coll is that every tournament he enters he wants to come out the winner,” Norman said of his fellow Kiwi.
“He wants to do that regardless of the importance or size of the tournament whether that is a World Championships, Gouna or out in Mauritius. But there is no question that Paul will be wanting to stop the run of losses he is having and to finish the season as strongly as possible at the World Tour Finals.
Coll (right) on court with Mostafa Asal (left) at the El Gouna International
“That said regardless of what happens in Cairo he will regroup really well and I think he will go away and do some real good off-season work with Rob Owen and he will return an even better player. The question the guys that he is fighting for the No.1 slot have to ask themselves is: ‘Will they come back having improved?’”
Of Coll’s three set-backs, the most disappointing came at the PSA World Championships and Norman has no doubt where it all went wrong:
“The [Tarek] Momen match in the quarters of the Worlds took quite a bit out his tank and he wasn’t 100% going into the semi-finals, and that can happen to anyone at that level of squash.
“The type of game Paul plays is very physical and if he has a tough game like he did with Momen at over two hours then it is going to penalise him in the semis. Just no one is that fit, although perhaps if he were 22 or 23 when you are pretty much bomb proof, you would get through these rounds but Paul is now 30 and he will feel it like most guys do.
“Paul is probably the fittest guys on the circuit but a marathon like that with Tarek would handicap him in the semis and [Mohamed] ElShorbagy knew that and took advantage and fair play to him.
Coll (right) in action with Mohamed ElShorbagy (left)
“I was surprised at the result in the final at Gouna as not many people beat Paul 3-0 and you wonder if it might be a changing of the guard. As you have Ali at 30 and I think Mohamed is 31 and Paul is also 30 but they have really done some hard mileage early on and Paul has not been up there for so long, even although he is now just turned 30 as well.
“But I can’t remember the last time someone beat Paul Coll 3-0 although he has always had trouble with Asal who beat him the first couple of times they played although I think Paul won the last two matches before Gouna and certainly he cleaned him up in the semi of the British 3-0. That said Egyptians in Egypt are always very tough for anyone.”
Norman, who enjoyed a career high ranking of World No.2 when, despite his World Championship victory he was unable to dislodge the iconic Jahangir Khan from the top spot, is sanguine about his fellow New Zealander’s loss of the World No.1 ranking.
“Obviously Paul has lost the World No.1 ranking and he will want that back but now that the Worlds are gone I don’t think that it will be the be all or end all for him. Really the difference in kudos between one and two in the rankings is very little as they are separated in the draw anyway,” the 1986 World Champion said.
“So I don’t think losing the No.1 ranking will be a big problem for Paul, he has been there now and not a lot of people can say that. Of course he will want to win the World Tour Finals and he will be giving it 100% and looking to finish as strongly as he can but that is something that he does anyway.
“The message Paul puts out every time he goes on court is that anyone who wants to beat him is going to have to work really hard and that is not going to change.”
While Coll’s front court game has clearly evolved under coach Rob Owen and new shots like a backhand trickle boast have been added the Kiwi’s game still revolves around metronomic back court accuracy and obdurate defence.
All of which means that in the latter stages of the game’s majors victories tend to come at a cost particularly if Coll’s game slips below the subliminal standards of his British Open glory saunter. So does Norman foresee a style change over the off season for his countryman?
“Paul is definitely improving his front court game and that has been evident in the last couple of years since he has been with Rob Owen. You can see that his strategy has evolved as his front game has improved and I believe that all parts of his game have indeed improved,” said Norman emphatically.
“But it is like in the old days where when I first turned pro, Geoff Hunt was World No.1 and then the next five were all Pakistanis and Geoff had the same thing. He had a fairly attritional game but in order to win a Worlds or a British, which he did most of the time, he had to work his way through most of these guys and it is now the same for Paul, plus he also has Diego Elias to contend with, who beat him in the semis in Mauritius. So that is tough for him there is no question.
“But what Paul needs is to get through the quarters and the semis without getting dragged into the type of war he had with Momen at the World Championships and then to make the final as fresh as possible, but a lot of that depends on the draw although it is different at the World Tour Finals with the group matches best of three.”