By RJ Mitchell
Australia’s former World No.1 Sarah Fitz-Gerald believes that when the PSA World Tour resumes Nour El Sherbini will still be the player to beat.
The five-time World Champion reckons that, despite her shock loss to USA No.1 Amanda Sobhy in the quarter finals of the Black Ball Open in December, El Sherbini’s superior record against all her major rivals will give her a pivotal edge.
With the 25-year-old also having lifted four World titles and two British Opens, the Aussie squash icon suggests El Sherbini can make that extra big game experience count, when a return to court is completed.
Yet ‘Sarah Fitz’ knows that the Egyptian’s bruising five-game defeat by US No.1 Sobhy will have given the rest of the top names in the women’s game hope that a chink in the armour of the ‘Warrior Princess’ has been discovered and is fascinated by what that might mean when action starts again.
Fitz-Gerald, whose 40-month spell as World No.1 over three separate reigns has placed her at No.4 in the list of longest reigning women’s world No.1s, just nine months ahead of El Sherbini, said: “I do think Nour is still the player to beat and that is because her record is so good and particularly against the girls who are still playing and of course with Raneem [El Welily] retiring and Nour [El Tayeb] taking a break, so on paper she is the one to beat.
“Her record is better than anyone still playing, she has these four World titles, and she has won the British twice as well and you have to respect that and the fact that she is just 25- years-old.
“Hania [El Hammamy] is the one coming up for sure, but I am really pleased that Amanda [Sobhy] got that win after all her Achilles injuries but Nour’s loss at the Black Ball combined with SJ’s [Perry] victory will have inspired the rest of the girls. They know El Sherbini is beatable.
“They will also be saying to themselves: ‘I can win this title’. Maybe they will have lost to El Sherbini 10-times but that loss to Sobhy, well it means they will have seen a chink in the armour and with Nour being beaten in a quarter final, which is just so unusual, it gives them hope going into 2021.”
Fitz-Gerald also has an interesting take on why El Sherbini and her apparent heir successor as No.1 Hania El Hammamy came a cropper in Cairo before Christmas: “It’s always been the case that the Egyptians are really hard to beat in Egypt but maybe sometimes the pressure just becomes too much, the expectancy too much. The crowd were 100% there for the Egyptians and you wonder if that pressure has had a build up on them.
“Nour was expected to win and when Amanda knocks her out it just changes the mindset of the players and that is something which I saw time and time again in my day. It changes who will win the tournament and the players will say: ‘I have a chance of winning this’, or: ‘My chances have suddenly got greater.’
Nour El Sherbini
“I have no idea if that was the case without having been there, absorbing the atmosphere and seeing the players up close and reading their body language as you just can’t tell that from TV coverage alone. But I know I did suffer from that heightened expectation in Australia and also at the British Open.
“My expectation to win when I was World No.1, in particular to win the British was through the roof and let me tell you the British was and is a damn hard tournament to win. So, I am just wondering if some of that pressure came back on the Egyptians at the Black Ball and home comforts came back to haunt them.”
Looking in more detail at Amanda Sobhy’s defeat of El Sherbini, which was arguably the shock of the first-half of the season, the seven-time major winner said: “That win over El Sherbini will have given Amanda a big lift and I’m sure it will have done plenty in terms of giving her confidence to kick on and do it again. But the hardest part is you’ve got to do it again, repeat it, break the glass ceiling.
“The main thing for Amanda is that she keeps reaching her seeded position avoids early losses which can maybe leave you saying: ‘Oh gosh I hope that wasn’t a one hit wonder’. So, Amanda has to build on that great win and find others.
“But it’s all about belief and once you have done it once, well you know you have it in you. I would describe it as the difference between knowing and believing.
“You know you are a good player; you are in the top-10 in the world for a reason but getting these results gives you that belief and when you have it, more often than not, these results will keep coming.”
When it comes to after effects of the Black Ball’s epic five-game final between Sarah-Jane Perry and Hania El Hammamy, Fitz-Gerald was happy to delve into her own memory bank of full- distance death struggles to provide two sides of the coin as to how the shock waves might impact in the second-half of the season.
“With Hania not closing out at match ball, SJ was able to free up and just play her squash with no pressure and she came through to achieve a great win and the biggest of her career and well done to her.
“I’ve been in a couple of these matches similar to that Black Ball final and you are saying to yourself: ‘I’ve got to win’, asking why you haven’t won by now and realising you are getting just so tight and that your opponent is coming on strong. You just get so tight and things do run away from you and you just can’t turn it around.
“So, I’ve had it from both sides of the coin. From the positive side my best experience in these type of matches was in ’98 and it was the World Open final in Stuttgart, Germany, against Michelle [Martin]. I was 2-1 up and I remember thinking: ‘I’m going to win this’ and that I felt good enough to win this in four games.
“Anyway, Michelle and I got tangled up and I tripped on her foot and I landed on my bum and the ref gave me a stroke which was harsh as I tripped, and it was an accident, but I was asking myself why did he give me that and it was just enough to disrupt my head.
“I had landed with a bit of a thud and his decision just threw me off and so I had gone from playing a great match, to losing my focus and I dropped the fourth game and for some reason my head had gone and nothing I played worked.
“From there Michelle got to 8-2 up in the fifth, in old style scoring hand-in hand-out, with me receiving at 2-8 down in the fifth and I just thought: ‘Oh it’s gone.’
“Until then every rally was crap, three or five strokes, I was all over the place, so I took a breath and vowed to myself I would make the last point as tough as I could and make it last as long as possible. Michelle was going to have to win it and it went hand out and 2-8, 3-8, 4-8, 5-8, with a few lets and hands outs along the way.
“Then at 8-8, with Michelle serving, she played an ordinary boast, but the timing was awkward, and I was asking myself: ‘Do I try to reach it before the side wall or after?’ Anyway, I made the wrong call, and I couldn’t scrape it off the wall and she went back up 9-8 and I thought: ‘Oh God, after all this comeback and I might lose on that ridiculous shot!’
“But I went back to my mantra of: ’just make it as tough as possible and no errors’, then I got the hand out and equalled the score at 9-9. This time I was serving from the left box and I remembered looking at Michelle and I saw her eyes widen. So, I thought, that’s interesting, as I could see the slight panic in there and I kept it going to win 10-9 in the fifth.
“But I look back at that match and all the ebbs and flows it had and Michelle just couldn’t get control back and it still amazes me. I think in fact I had nine match balls against me! So, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
But Sarah’s great Aussie rival, Michelle Martin, also snatched an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat as Sarah winced: “The one that went against me also came against Michelle, this time in Malaysia. I was 2-1 up and I was 8-4 match ball and she hit a shocker of a ball up the middle of the court and I literally moved my racket from my right hand to my left to shake her hand and the ref says: ‘Yes, let!
“Well Michelle looked at me, raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders and I lost it. In my head I had already won, and I couldn’t get it back and she came right back to win the match.
“I just couldn’t get it back. It was like I didn’t know how to play; I couldn’t construct a rally and my head was just spinning and that was the Malaysian Open final gone.
“So, I have seen it from both sides. It’s an amazing experience if you come through it but a crappy one if you don’t, that’s the bottom line.”