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Nele Gilis in action

2018-2019 Season Review - Breakthrough Stars: Part Two

The CIB PSA World Tour Finals brought the curtain down on the 2018-19 season last month as Egyptian duo Karim Abdel Gawad and Raneem El Welily took silverware in two epic finals held at Cairo’s Mall of Arabia.

It’s been one of the most captivating seasons in recent memory, and we’ll be reviewing all the major talking points from the past 10 months. We’ve already looked at the campaign’s outstanding performers, the players to watch ahead of next season, the season’s biggest shocks and the most incredible comebacks.

Today, we’re continuing our look at the players that made their breakthroughs during the 2018-19 season. Read part one here.

Nele Gilis

World Ranking: #18
2018-19 Honours:
Irish Open
Open International de Squash de Nantes
Played: 30
Won: 18
Lost: 12
Win Percentage: 60%

Gilis after a victory at the British Open in Hull

Nele Gilis enjoyed a history-making 2018-19 campaign that saw her become the first female Belgian player ever to reach the world’s top 20, while she also lifted the two biggest titles of her career.

Gilis began the season ranked outside of the top 30 but started the campaign in winning fashion, with her first title triumph in front of the SQUASHTV cameras coming at the Open International de Squash de Nantes in September.

The 23-year-old powered into the final after beating Rachael Chadwick, Alexandra Fuller and No.2 seed Fiona Moverley and went up against top seed Emily Whitlock in the title decider.

Gilis twice came back from a game down in front of a packed crowd at the Théâtre Graslin, before taking the fifth 11-6 to capture the most prestigious trophy of her career at that time.

Gilis then had to wait seven months for further silverware, which she sealed in style at the Irish Open. Like in Nantes, the Belgian reached the final without dropping a game, and ended the tournament with a 100 per cent record after dispatching South Africa’s Alexandra Fuller 3-0.

That put Gilis on the verge of the top 20 and she finally bridged that gap with a run to the quarter-finals of the sport’s oldest tournament – the British Open – becoming the first Belgian player in history to reach the last eight.

Along the way, she came up against younger sister Tinne, who had brought the legendary Laura Massaro’s career to an end in round two. The pair played out a hard-fought battle, with Nele winning in four games in emotional scenes.

Her tournament came to an end against eventual runner-up Camille Serme in the next round and Gilis will look to become a more regular fixture in the latter stages of the sport’s biggest tournaments next season.

Iker Pajares Bernabeu

World Ranking: #42
2018-19 Honours:
TelAviv Open
Florida Open
Played: 31
Won: 22
Lost: 9
Win Percentage: 70.1%

Pajares in action at the El Gouna International back in April

Spain’s Iker Pajares Bernabeu looks set to be one of the players to watch heading into next season after the 23-year-old collected two PSA World Tour titles and established himself as a top 50 player during the 2018-19 campaign.

Pajares, who hails from Barcelona, ended 2018 on a high, winning the Florida Open after beating top seed Richie Fallows in the final.

It was in the latter months of the season that he really cemented his status as an up-and-coming player. A 3-0 victory over the higher ranked Lucas Serme in the first round of the El Gouna International was followed up by a narrow 3-2 defeat against former World No.3 Omar Mosaad.

It wouldn’t take Pajares long to have another crack at ‘The Hammer of Thor’ though, with the pair facing off once again the following month, this time at the Wimbledon Open.

The match once again went to five games, but the score was reversed as Pajares emerged victorious after 99 minutes of high-octane action.

The unseeded Spaniard followed that up with victories against World No.19 Daryl Selby and former World No.1 James Willstrop to reach the biggest final of his career, where he eventually went down to World No.11 Marwan ElShorbagy.

He wasn’t done there though, and battled to victory at the TelAviv Open a fortnight later to lift the ninth PSA title of his career.

Olivia Fiechter

World Ranking: #39
2018-19 Honours:
Rhode Island Open
Played: 39
Won: 26
Lost: 13
Win Percentage: 66.7%

Fiechter playing at the British Open

New York-based Olivia Fiechter made meteoric strides up the PSA World Rankings last season, rising 108 places to finish the campaign ranked at No.39 in the world.

The 23-year-old reached three PSA finals in all, with the first of those coming at the Rhode Island Open in November.

Fiechter was yet to get her hands on silverware on the PSA World Tour, but played above her No.3 seeded position as she achieved wins over France’s Melissa Alves, England’s Charlotte Jagger and top seed Nicole Bunyan, against whom she won 12-10 in a dramatic deciding fifth game.

Despite her gladiatorial clash with Canada’s Bunyan, Fiechter was able to back it up in the final as she beat World No.112 Menna Nasser 3-0 to lift her maiden PSA trophy.

A month later, she reached the same stage of the Remeo Open, but went down in straight games to Scotland’s Lisa Aitken.

Between March-April, Fiechter enjoyed a rich vein of form as she reached three successive semi-finals – a run in which she beat the likes of World No.9 Tesni Evans and World No.30 Hollie Naughton – while she also made it to the final of the Richmond Open, finishing as runner-up to compatriot Reeham Sedky.

Philadelphia-born Fiechter will be targeting further title success next season and has been named as the wildcard for September’s Oracle NetSuite Open, which will take place in San Francisco.

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