By RJ Mitchell
Laura Massaro believes that consistency will be the key to SJ Perry’s hopes of using her Black Ball Open triumph as the springboard to gate-crashing the top two in the World Rankings.
In an in-depth interview with PSA website after what was undoubtedly the biggest triumph of her career, Perry underlined that her New Year’s resolution was to use her triumph in the land of the Pyramids to challenge for a position at the summit of the World Rankings.
Now, former World No.1 Massaro, the woman who defeated Perry in the 2017 British Open final, has highlighted a need for her countrywoman to produce her best week-in, week-out, if she wants to break the Egyptian domination of the game.
Massaro also believes that Hania El Hammamy, who Perry beat in that epic final in Cairo before Christmas, will only benefit from suffering the bitter taste of defeat in a major final for the first time.
While with Nour El Tayeb following Raneem El Welily into retirement, temporary or not, Massaro reckons such was the intensity of the competition, spiralling quality of the squash and unpredictability of the results at the Black Ball, that it has only served to heighten the hopes of several of the game’s top stars that 2021 could be their year.
“In terms of her win at the Black Ball Open, I was both surprised and not surprised! I watched most of the tournament plus, of course, SJ’s matches and obviously in the first round she had a bit of struggle with Emily [Whitlock] and it just seemed that every match was a battle,” Massaro said.
“But winning these types of battles gives you enormous belief and I think as the tournament unfolded you could see this with SJ. Although she had so many five-game matches, I think the key for her is that her style is not particularly physical. When you compare her style to say a Hania [El Hammamy] or a Camille [Serme], then SJ likes to control the ball and to move her opponent and make them do the work.
Sarah-Jane Perry was all smiles after winning the CIB Black Ball Squash Open in Cairo
“She knows that it does not suit her to get drawn into an extreme physical battle and she is smart about this and I think that was a huge factor in helping her back-up from round after round and go from a 74-minute semi-final to a 75-minute final and come through.
“There is no doubt that winning an event the size of the Black Ball will have given SJ a huge amount of belief and that it is the best win of her career but when it comes to her using this to break into the top rankings at No.1 or No.2 then what will matter is: Can she do this consistently?
“You have got to be able to go from one tournament to another and back a good run up with another good run and to do that you need to have your body and mind holding up and staying very strong.
“To an extent the rankings fall behind the results in that you can have won a big tournament and got the results that will take you into the top two rankings but there is a slight lag in that process and so the question is can you hold that form?
“But with Raneem [El Welily] having retired and Nour [El Tayeb] now starting families there are two places now in the top four that had been filled permanently and they are up for grabs and SJ will not be the only girl who will be targeting a move into these slots.”
Turning her attention to Hania El Hammamy, whose defeat by Perry in the final of the CIB Black Ball Open was her first defeat in a major final, after previously winning last season’s Black Ball Open and claiming the CIB World Tour Finals title in October, the great Massaro recalled a fascinating conversation she’d had with ‘the Gazelle’ earlier in her career that strongly suggests the World No.5 will use her defeat as an important stepping stone in her squash journey.
“For Hania it was all a little bit different this time in the final of the Black Ball. To a certain extent, last season, she came out of nowhere to win the title back in March, but it is important to remember that this not in fact her first tough loss.
Hania El Hammamy looking disconsolate after losing in the final in Cairo
“Before I retired from the tour, I remember having a chat with Hania. In Hong Kong we had drawn each other two years in succession and as a girl ranked down in the 20s, she made the point to me that she had had a lot of tough draws against girls in the top-10 and was to a certain extent coming up against a ceiling.
“But she took these losses, learned from them, and what a breakthrough she has made. So, I have no doubt that she will have learned a lot from her loss to SJ. Also, I think if you look at her record in finals and big matches, it is already very impressive, and she will have known that she wasn’t going to win every time.
“So, I believe Hania will use the final with SJ as a massive learning curve and that it will stand her in very good stead going forward over the next year.”
Perhaps the most outstanding victory in Cairo was Amanda Sobhy’s enthralling five-game defeat of World No.1 and reigning four-time World Champion Nour El Sherbini, which was followed by another impressive performance by the US No.1 who pushed El Hammamy all the way in three gripping games in the semi-final.
Amanda Sobhy celebrates during her match with Nour El Sherbini in Cairo
“Amanda’s win over El Sherbini was perhaps the most impressive of the week and it was a really topsy turvy affair but a great match to watch with an awful lot of winners and exciting attacking squash played. There is no doubt that it was a massive result for Amanda to take out the World No.1 and World Champion,” said Laura.
“From following Amanda on social media, I was aware that before the tournament she was not best pleased with her record in Egypt, so her run to the semi-final and victory over Nour will have given her a lot of belief going forward but she will not have been alone in that respect in terms of the Black Ball.”
Yet, as Laura admitted, the way the cards fell in Cairo will have only added fuel to the fire of ambition in several of the game’s top women players as they look forward to the resumption of the PSA World Tour.
“There were a few girls who lost in really tight matches like Hania, Nour, Joelle [King] and there were some that had some great wins like Hollie Naughton’s defeat of Rowan Elaraby in the opening round. On the other hand, some girls will have been a bit disappointed, like Rowan and will be determined to rebound from the Black Ball.
“So, I think that when you look at it like that and add into the mix that Nour [El Tayeb] and Raneem [El Welily] have gone it all adds up to a really exciting year ahead and one in which opportunity beckons to a lot of these girls.”
Finally, the classy Massaro was keen to pay tribute to Nicol David, the women’s game’s longest ever reigning World No.1, who earlier this week was shortlisted for the World Games ‘Greatest Athlete of All Time’ accolade.
Nicol David (front) and Laura Massaro (back) in action at the 2018 US Open
Massaro, who lost and won in successive British Open finals against David, said: “When you look at everything Nicol has achieved in squash it is unbelievable. To have been World No.1 for nine years and won 81 PSA titles underline that.
“When she was at her peak, she set a bar for the rest of us to follow and if we could not lift our game, she left us behind.
“To be No.1 in any sport for the length of time that Nicol reigned is a fantastic achievement and her nomination is recognition of that.”