The packed crowd at Grand Central Terminal in New York was treated to brilliant and breath-taking squash on the all-glass court under the magnificent chandeliers in the Vanderbilt Hall as the four best players on the PSA World Tour contested the semi-finals of the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions to earn the right to play for the prestigious title.
After marathon encounters in the first PSA World Series event of the year, fourth seed Ramy Ashour outlasted favourite James Willstrop in five games (both pictured above) to set up a final against Gregory Gaultier, the third seed who upset title-holder Nick Matthew in 93 minutes.
The first match was a classic confrontation of two great shot-makers and strategists. Ashour, the new world number one from Egypt, and former top-ranked Englishman Willstrop have had several memorable matches on the ToC glass court – and the latest clash was one of their best ever.
“There’s something in the air here,” said Willstrop. “We always seem to have really good matches. There is a great sense of occasion for these matches at the Tournament of Champions.”
Willstrop rose to the occasion from the very start with focus, intensity and a dead-on backcourt game that prevented Ashour from deploying his lethal front court shot-making. The 29-year-old Englishman won the game 11-5, leaving the voluble Egyptian talking to himself in frustration.
Willstrop jumped out to another early lead in the second game. The Egyptian yelled in frustration at himself, looking to his brother Hisham in the stands just behind the court and shouting at him.
“Somehow, in that moment, the match dynamic changed,” explained event spokesman Beth Rasin. “Ashour was back in the game – literally and figuratively.”
The 25-year-old from Cairo matched Willstrop’s length to the back corners and began moving his 6’4” opponent to the corners. Willstrop responded in kind, and the rallies throughout the midpoint of the second game held the standing room only crowd spellbound.
“As soon as either player got a loose ball, he attacked with a deft drop shot to the front court or a hard drive,” Rasin continued. “There was a continuing change of pace throughout the game. Tied at eight-all, it was anybody’s game. But Ashour closed it out 11-8.”
The third game was a seesaw, with the lead changing hands several times. This was squash at its very best, showcasing the contrasting player styles. Ashour was hitting spectacularly good shots and Willstrop played extraordinary defence to keep points alive several times over.
“The tall Englishman was scrambling, diving and turning quickly to make gets that would be amazing for any player, let alone for a player so tall,” Rasin explained.
But it wasn’t all defence from the world No3 from Leeds. When he had an opening, Willstrop used the deft, soft shot-making that has prompted Ashour to refer to him as the “English Egyptian.”
Down 8-10 in the third, Willstrop hit a backhand drop nick winner. At 9-10, Ramy took control of the point, hitting attacking shots to the front and back of the court which had Willstrop twisting, turning and lunging, but it was Willstrop who won the point with a volley winner to even the score at 10-all.
A cracking forehand drive from Ashour forced an error from Willstrop and a loose Willstrop service return on game ball opened up the court for an Ashour winner to give the 25-year-old Egyptian the game, 12-10.
The fourth was another back and forth battle which had the players tied at eight-all, nine-all and ten-all. A soft crosscourt forehand drop winner and a straight drop from Willstrop that forced an error into the tin from Ashour gave Willstrop the game 12-10.
Ashour charged out at the beginning of the fifth with a quick hitting, attacking game that gave him an 8-3 lead. After more than an hour of especially brutal squash, Willstrop showed the slightest hint of weariness and Ashour earned his place in the final with an 11-4 fifth game victory.
“It was anybody’s match to win, and Ramy put together a couple of good rallies at the end that had a domino effect to open up that fifth game,” said Willstrop after the match. “That’s why he is the very best player in the world right now.”
Ashour, now in his 43rd Tour final, responded: “That was hard, and one my very best wins. I had to push and push. I was trying to control the pace and play well into the corners. To win a match like this, you have to have more than skill. You have to have will, determination and resilience.”
The world number one, who is often lauded for his extraordinary shot-making ability, is not content to have those skills be his ultimate legacy. “It is more important for me to be known as a fighter than a skill player.”
Ashour will have a fight on his hands in the final when he takes on Frenchman Gaultier, who defeated English title-holder Matthew in four hard-hitting games. It was a gladiatorial contest between the two players known as being the strongest men on the PSA World Tour.
The first two games saw the players trading powerful drives and cross courts, shot for shot, and exchanging the lead on almost every other point. Gaultier drew first blood, winning the opening game 11-8.
The 32-year-old world No2 from Sheffield responded by grabbing the second 12-10. Although Gaultier took the early lead in the third game at 5-3, he became irritated with the referees and the lead slipped away. When Matthew surged ahead to 10-6, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Englishman, known for his competitive focus, would win the game and take the match lead.
But it was Gaultier who regained his focus. Two winners from the Aix-en-Provence 30-year-old were followed by two unforced errors from Matthew and the game was tied at 10-all. When Gaultier won the game 13-11, the match momentum shifted dramatically to his racket.
The Frenchman looked like a man on fire at the start of the fourth as he sprinted out to a 7-0 lead. A dispirited Matthew was unable to mount a charge and Gaultier finished out the game 11-3 to earn his second final appearance at the Tournament of Champions.
“Credit to Gaultier for never giving up the third game,” said Matthew after the match. “It was psychologically tough in the fourth; I couldn’t get my mind off not having closed the door when I was up 10-6 in the third,” added the Yorkshireman, denied a third successive appearance in the final.
Gaultier, celebrating his 49th PSA Tour final, concluded: “I felt a bit flat at the end of the second game. At one all, I knew it was going to be very tough. But when I won the third game, it gave me confidence and I forgot about being tired.”