Victory for Laura Massaro and Gregory Gaultier at the PSA Dubai World Series Finals last month brought an end to what has been one of the most remarkable and memorable seasons ever in the history of professional squash – a nine-month spell that saw records made, rivalries ignited, careers forged and history made.
Over the next few weeks we’re looking back at the major moments that lit up the PSA World Tour during 2015/16, starting with the breakthrough performances, to the most outstanding performers and performances, shock moments, and rising stars that ensured the 2015/16 season – the first full season of combined governance since the PSA and WSA joined forces in a historic merger back on January 1st, 2015 – will go down in the sporting annals as one of the best ever.
This is the second part of our look at the players who will be looking to make their impact on the Tour next season. You can find part one here.
Malaysian icon and eight-time World Champion Nicol David saw her unprecedented nine-year reign as the World No.1 come to an end last September – which acted as a pre-cursor to a relatively inauspicious season compared to the 32-year-old’s incredibly high standards.
The 2015/16 season began with a change to the Women’s tin height, from 19” to 17”, and David, whose style of play relies on speed, movement and her ability to structure rallies, has been attempting to rebuild her game over the past nine months.
After suffering a shock defeat to World Junior Champion Nouran Gohar in the China Open in September, David went on to sustain a calf injury that kept her out for a month before making her comeback in October’s US Open – where she surrendered a 2-0 lead over Laura Massaro to bow out in the last eight.
She demonstrated some of her best squash a month later in Qatar, where only a narrow 3-2 defeat to Egypt’s Nour El Sherbini prevented her from reaching the final.
Despite falling to number three in the world in December, David returned to form at the Hong Kong Open where, after a series of sublime displays culminating in a commanding victory over Laura Massaro in the final, she captured an incredible 10th consecutive Hong Kong Open crown.
However, 2016 saw David unable to repeat her Hong Kong heroics as she fell to El Sherbini in her next four tournaments as the young Egyptian became the only current player to have a superior head-to-head record over the Malaysian.
David went down in straight games in the semi-final and quarter-final stages of the Tournament of Champions and the Windy City Open – the latter of which saw her fall to number five in the world, her lowest ranking since 2004 – and was only able to take a game off El Sherbini in March’s British Open.
The pair’s next meeting came at the Women’s World Championship, held in Kuala Lumpur, where David was roared on by a partizan home crowd in her native country. Held in the aptly named Nicol David arena, the gathered spectators saw their home hero go toe-to-toe with El Sherbini in a highly-competitive opening two games which left the scores delicately poised at 1-1.
El Sherbini soon came out on top though to break Malaysian hearts, but David did bounce back at the season-ending PSA Dubai World Series Finals a month later, reaching the semi-final stage.
Arguably the greatest female player the world has ever seen, David is eyeing up a return to her dominant form of years gone by ahead of next season and, with legendary coach Liz Irving at her side, will hope to fine-tune her game in a bid to return to the very top.
Men’s World Junior Champion Diego Elias is one of the sport’s most promising talents and, at the age of just 19, has firmly established himself as a top 35 player having made a number of appearances at World Series events.
Building on a summer that saw him become the youngest ever Pan American Games finalist in squash, in addition to becoming only the fourth player to win the World Junior Championship twice – putting him in distinguished company with the likes of ElShorbagy brothers, Mohamed and Marwan, and Ramy Ashour – Elias began the 2015/16 season with two quarter-final finishes in his first four tournaments.
The beginning of 2016 saw the Peruvian fall to first round exits in his first three tournaments, although he was unlucky to miss out on a place in the last eight of the Colombia Open after a narrow defeat to Indian No.1 Saurav Ghosal.
A fine win over Egypt’s Fares Dessouky in March’s Windy City Open saw Elias reach the second round of a World Series tournament for the first time, where he lost out to Tarek Momen, but he was unable to build on this later in the month at the British Open after an injury ended his event at the qualifying stage.
Early exits at the El Gouna International and Houston Open then followed before he made it to the quarter-final stage of a PSA World Tour event for the first time in six months at the PSA Sporta in May, ending the season ranked 33rd in the world – four places higher then where he started.
While PSA World Tour silverware was hard to come by for Elias throughout last season, the precocious Peruvian has a wealth of talent and will be looking to make a step forward in his development during the next campaign as he aims to work his way into the world’s top 30.
Liu Tsz-Ling takes on Nour El Tayeb in the Women's World Championship
With two PSA World Tour titles under her belt after a 2015/16 season that saw her dip into the world’s top 30, Hong Kong Liu Tsz-Ling looks set to follow in compatriot and former World No.6 Annie Au’s footsteps as the next top player to emerge from Hong Kong.
Liu began the season ranked 46th in the world and quickly followed up a qualifying round defeat in the Macau Open by lifting the JSW Chennai Circuit title in October, overturning a 2-0 deficit against the in-form Millie Tomlinson in the final.
A qualifying exit at the Qatar Classic and a first round loss to Nicol David in her native country for the Hong Kong Open rounded off 2015 for Liu, but she returned to form two months later in February to capture the Bahria Town International crown.
Liu then headed to Hull for the prestigious British Open where she followed up a superb win over former World No.1 Jenny Duncalf by taking a game against current World Champion Nour El Sherbini in a narrow second round exit.
The April rankings saw Liu break the world’s top 30 for the first time, and she appeared in the main draw of the Women’s World Championship for the first time later that month, succumbing to Nour El Tayeb in round one.
A narrow 3-2 defeat to Au in last month’s HKFC International eventually brought Liu’s season to an end, but her fine progress ensures that she can look back at the past nine months as something to build on as she looks to knock on the door of the world’s top 20.
Argentine Robertino Pezzota ended 12-month hiatus from the PSA World Tour last month, winning the first stage of the Tour de las Americas – the Mar del Plata Open – on his first tournament back, despite beginning the tournament as a qualifier.
The lack of professional match practice continued to show no signs of hindering Pezzota, who was a bronze medalist at last year’s Pan American Games, as the 33-year-old followed up his Mar del Plata triumph by winning the Cordoba Open.
Pezzota’s 19-match unbeaten run was eventually ended a week later at the hands of Mexico’s Arturo Salazar in the quarter-final of the Resistencia Open, but it didn’t stop his World Ranking rocketing from 451st in the world to 127nd.
June saw the man from Rosario reach the finals of both the Paraguay Open and Tortugas Open, losing again to Salazar in the former, while succumbing to Leandro Romiglio in the latter.
Despite his increasing years, Pezzota’s talent is there for all to see and he will be eyeing up further glory next season as he looks to establish himself as his country’s number one player.