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 end of the PSA World Tour season and touches on the ongoing Commonwealth Games.
By Jonah Barrington
Mostafa Asal has moved himself into the top category without any doubt.
If you took the top four players in Ali [Farag], Paul [Coll], Mohamed [ElShorbagy], and Mostafa [Asal] you now have a group which, going forward, I’m wondering who will be the dominant player and No.1 in 12-months’ time?
In this respect, each player in his own way must continue to respond.
Yet the one individual who will almost inevitably be better in three months, six months and nine months is Asal.
Essentially, we have had two seasons in one, and I think the bodies were really battered by the final stretch in both the men’s and women’s game, everyone sorely needed a break albeit we have the Commonwealth Games kicking off today.
So this has been probably the most valuable period of recovery for a very long time at the top end of our sport and an invaluable training block going into next season with everyone in fine fettle.
I hope that will stir Diego Elias, who is showing signs of being what he should be, which is a title contender and a challenger for the World No.1 ranking. Although it seems to have been a long time coming now, it is the crunch time to see if he can make the move in one big match and back it up in the next as the very best players have always had to do.
But the point must be made that Tarek Momen is not going away. His age at the moment is still just a number as he is still playing at his very highest level, and I expect another very good year from him.
Where that leaves Marwan [ElShorbagy], I just don’t know. We are looking at a very high-quality squash player with a really good brain, but we wait to see what he has learned about himself and whether that will raise his level of hunger and desire to re-emerge at the top end, as he got pretty close to it four years back.
Mostafa Asal claimed back-to-back titles at the CIB PSA World Tour Finals and the El Gouna International at the end of the season
Victor Crouin is another who I will follow with interest. This young Frenchman is being mentioned by not only Ali Farag but one or two of the others, and it is obvious there is a feeling amongst the elite that he is moving up and the next 12 months will be very significant in that respect.
But our friend in America, Youssef Ibrahim, graduates shortly and he is a wildcard, but with more stability and continuity than [Mazen] Hesham, and I believe he is bound to become a major player.
So there is some pretty fascinating stuff about to emerge in the men’s game, and don’t forget that Mohamed [ElShorbagy] is in a better moment and will get better again. You must remember that after a pretty disastrous 12 months he was within two points of winning the World Championship, and that is significant.
Yet the women are beyond belief.
There have been a number of great stories on the women’s side, but possibly the biggest has been the return of Nour El Tayeb. I’ve read about her psychological problem with the game a couple of years back through lockdown, Then she had her baby and went through the remorseless background work needed to bring her to the level she was at when she won the U.S. Open a few years ago, having been one of the four major players, all of whom were Arab women.
Although El Tayeb is not ranked within the four best players in the world, by Christmas she will certainly be there.
The supporting cast is fascinating as we have really top players in Amanda Sobhy, Joelle King and then a group of younger players who have the opportunity to bridge the gap if the application is obsessive and the ambition all-consuming.
Throughout the last winter and into the spring it has been [Nouran] Gohar, [Nour] El Sherbini and [Hania] El Hammamy, and that was as special as it gets as each of them is different to the other.
Nouran Gohar is the woman to beat
Each one plays the game in her own way, with great intensity which may be almost invisible with Sherbini, but is almost overt with Hammamy and Gohar. The level of squash has been higher in the women’s game than I’ve ever seen it. El Tayeb will join them on that peak soon.
The challenges to these four will grow and it will come anyway from Amanda Sobhy, who is searching for that extra improvement and almost inevitably she will raise her game and her level will be more consistent at the top end.
Those behind are, in the main, pretty young, whether it is Rowan Elaraby or Georgina Kennedy, you could name a good 10 and there has been a significant opportunity over the last few weeks to develop their games.
Now to the Commonwealth Games and on day one we had 14-year-old Anahat Singh against Jada Ross from St Vincent & The Grenadines and it must be one of the youngest ever matches in the Commonwealth Games, which is amazing!
Yet Joelle King is the defending ladies champion, she isn’t going away, and she is in great shape and is obviously highly motivated to defend her title.
We all think that Gina Kennedy will continue to rise up the World Rankings and is obviously a significant contender for the Commonwealth Games title.
This is a different event to those on the PSA World Tour and Gina will not have to deal with the Egyptian quartet that she has so far struggled with. At the same time, there is now a bit more pressure on her as there is more local expectancy and it will be fascinating to see how she responds to that.
There is also an interesting quarter-final between SJ [Perry] and Emily Whitlock. There are three or four who could upset the applecart in the women’s draw in a one-off match and Emily is one of them.
On the men’s side, James Willstrop isn’t in the event to make up the numbers, I assure you.
Can James Willstrop earn another Commonwealth Games gold medal?
He is the defending champion and he knows that he still retains the ability to play one match of the highest class. Only he will know if he can back that up, but he will not roll over. I also think that providing he is playing at a level that is acceptable to him, he will go on playing and long may he do so as we are talking about one of the great players.
You may inevitably think it will be a [Paul] Coll versus [Joel] Makin final and the odds would suggest that will be the case. To suggest anything else would be a gamble that not even Robert Owen [Coll’s coach] would take.
But I hope Saurav Ghosal will hopefully be fully fit, and I feel like he has almost been an under-achiever as he is a very good squash player. Free of any niggles, he is moving just as well as he was 10 years back. Saurav is dangerous and now improving and those are the main suspects.
It does look like that the top seeds will arrive in the final, yet you never know how people will react under pressure, although for me there is less likelihood of an upset on the women’s side.
On a personal note, Birmingham has rekindled the embers of my own career and it’s a funny one in that I played for Great Britain and I also played for Ireland and squash is all-Ireland, a bit like rugby.
So, I have wondered what would have happened if I had said I was playing in the Commonwealth Games for Ireland, albeit that would have been Northern Ireland, and of course I would have loved to have had the opportunity to play in it.
But sadly, squash was not admitted to the Commonwealths until Kuala Lumpur in 1998 so it is just one of those: ‘what ifs?’ But if I had any chance to play I would have jumped at it and providing Mohamed [ElShorbagy] is healthy in four years he will, I am sure, represent England proudly.
The Commonwealth Games is here and squash is at the forefront and visible, and I love that. What’s more, we deserve to be there.
Our game has emerged from COVID and potentially is almost back to where it was before the virus. It is now gaining so much momentum it should soon surpass that, and I noticed in the Squash Player Magazine that in China they already have courts ready for next year’s Asian Games!
So squash is growing again, without perhaps the visibility of other sports, but it just underlines that squash is a one-off sport that determines its future in a way other sports don’t.