By RJ Mitchell
Former World No.1 Vanessa Atkinson has marked Nour El Sherbini as the firm favourite ahead of next week’s CIB Black Ball Open PSA Gold event taking place in Cairo, Egypt.
The top seeded 25-year-old will begin her challenge for the final women’s title of the calendar year against compatriot Zeina Mickawy on Monday, after reclaiming the World No.1 ranking for a second time following her triumph at the CIB Egyptian Open in October.
It was a victory that was notable for El Sherbini’s dispatch of the other two members of the world’s top three rankings.
Nour El Tayeb, the World No.3 was beaten in a four-game semi-final before the four-time World Champion clinically dismantled the power game of Nouran Gohar, who she subsequently deposed at the top of the ratings summit, in a straight games final.
While El Sherbini’s troublesome right knee, which saw her play just four tournaments last season, remained unstrapped, apparently recovered thanks to the six – month suspension of the PSA World Tour caused by the global COVID 19 pandemic.
All of which has prompted Atkinson, herself a former World No.1, who is now providing expert analysis and comments for SquashTV, to say she has no doubt the Warrior Princess is the player to beat when the action kicks off in Cairo next week.
“Looking forward to the Black Ball Open you would have to say that Nour is very much the player to beat, there are of course girls who can beat her, but right now you would say that if she is fit then it is in her hands to lose. The bottom line is that at her strongest and fully fit, Nour is the best player in the world,” said Atkinson.
Nour El Sherbini
“It is incredible what Nour has achieved already. She is tactically brilliant; her movement is great and really the only thing that has stopped her achieving even more has been injury.
“Yet if anything the lockdown has helped her in this regard. I noticed in the last tournament she was playing without a strapping and I think she is very much back to her best.
“What Nour has that is so effective is the ability to hold. This allows her to break her opponent’s rhythm, both in terms of their movement and hitting which then impacts on their accuracy. I thought she did that very effectively in the final of the Egyptian Open against Nouran [Gohar].
“That hold and the uncertainty it caused was the perfect antidote to Gohar’s power and it really broke her game up, as it does against so many of the girls when Nour is on form.”
Yet El Sherbini’s biggest challenge could come from defending champion Hania El Hammamy, who defeated her fellow Egyptian in the previous Black Ball Open final in an epic five-game encounter that culminated in a taught fifth-set tie-break which the World No.5 took 13-11.
Hania El Hammamy
As Atkinson admitted: “Hania could well emerge as Nour’s main challenger and she has a superb all-round game. She has the Egyptian flair and the ability to attack but she also has a well-structured game, and she is mentally extraordinarily strong for one so young.
“I also think she seems to have an ability to play the really big points very well and convert opportunities under pressure and that is a huge weapon for someone who has just turned 20 years-old.
“Again, you would have to say that if El Sherbini is not on it then Hania has the game to win big titles and she showed that when she beat Nour in the last Black Ball Open final back in March before the tour’s suspension.”
Yet World No.2 Nouran Gohar served notice last time out, in defeating El Hammamy in a feisty four game CIB Egyptian Open semi-final, that she is close to reclaiming her best and Atkinson reckons that her crunching power can prove to be an equaliser in the battle for global supremacy.
The 2004 World Champion said: “It is hugely impressive that Nouran has already won a British Open and held the No.1 ranking and she is still just 23. She is mentally really strong and just extremely determined and focussed and if Nour is not on her game then she is more than capable of beating her.
“Nouran plays at such a fast pace and is so relentless with it and against an awful lot of players that is very effective but even at that intensity she is very accurate and of course very powerful and I expect her to be there or thereabouts for years to come.”
The withdrawal of El Tayeb has seen France’s former British Open champion Camille Serme elevated to No.3 seed and Atkinson is adamant that the reigning ToC champion still has the game to go all the way in the land of the Pharaohs: “I don’t think that Camille’s level has dropped off at all I just think that the overall standard and depth of the ladies game at the top has really improved.
“What that means is that if Camille is playing well she can either go out at the quarter-final stage or go on a run and make it all the way to a final and win a major like she did at the ToC earlier this year.
“I think with Cami’s style of play and the physicality of her game there is going to be a lot of game time in her legs going into the later rounds and that can take its toll but she’s one of the toughest competitors out there and she still has more to give I’m sure.”
Turning her attention to English No.1 SJ Perry, Atkinson reckons that consistency will be the key to ‘majoring’ her cause.
“SJ is so gifted and skilful but the key for her is improving her consistency. When she puts it together then there is no one she can’t beat as she has already shown by beating El Sherbini and all of the other top players but she is a very tall girl and physically she has to work that bit harder to maintain her movement.
“But in terms of SJ’s ability it is all there, she is right in the mix and, when her game is on, capable of beating anyone.”
Of course the Black Ball Open will be without the presence of El Tayeb, who has withdrawn and Atkinson admitted she will miss seeing the Egyptian play at the event: “I was talking to Nour at the Egyptian Open and she said that at 27 years-old she was now the oldest Egyptian girl on the tour and that is an amazing thing as many European girls don’t peak until that age or older.
“I think there are still some areas she can improve on. Nour loves to play an open and attacking game and sometimes that can get her into trouble, and she uses her movement and retrieving skills to get her out of that.
“She could still improve, I think, tactically in terms of her structure but she still seems eager to keep developing and learning. I think there’s a danger of some of the Egyptian girls maybe retiring earlier than you might expect because they start playing and training full time at such a young age.
“At 27 Nour is already a veteran of the game and it’s tough to maintain that level both mentally and physically. But she still seems hungry for more so hopefully she’ll stick around aa while longer because she’s a real asset on tour.”
When it comes to her own garlanded career, the former Dutch No.1 was modest to a fault while admitting she is loving her new role behind the mic with SquashTV.
“It feels like a lifetime ago when I won my World title 16 years back and I am just so happy to be still involved in the game as I just love squash.
“But I am happy that I am not out there competing with the current crop of players because the standard now has really moved on. It’s just a real pleasure to still be able to be involved in the sport and working with SquashTV is something I am really enjoying.”