By RJ Mitchell
Former British Open champion Lisa Opie has hailed Sunday’s final between Nour El Sherbini and Nouran Gohar as the best squash match between two women she has seen.
It was 30 years ago that Opie finally claimed what was to be her one and only British Open triumph in her fifth final.
Yet in the third of these final appearances back in 1984, the English woman lost to Dame Susan Devoy in a titanic four-game struggle that was at the time considered ‘the best women’s squash match ever witnessed’ by Squash Player Magazine and played in front of a capacity 3,000 crowd at Wembley.
It was match for the ages that had it all, including a racket throwing meltdown by Opie that had the enthralled crowd on the edge of their seats.
But now Opie reckons Nour El Sherbini’s four game victory over Nouran Gohar, which played out 37 years after her bittersweet defeat to Dame Susan Devoy, should rightly be considered the defining encounter of the women’s game.
The former World No.1 said: “I have to be honest and say that I haven’t seen a better women’s match. People talked about my first final with Susan Devoy, when I threw my racket, as being the best they had seen, but I have to say I don’t think I have ever seen women play at the standard those girls did last Sunday.
“Even the warm up, when I was watching them knocking up and how quick and early, they were taking the ball it was just hugely impressive.
“In the past I have been disappointed with the women’s game and the men, with the Egyptians, had gone to another level, but now Sherbini and Gohar have just lifted the level for the women’s game.
“Seeing them both play, I had my money on Gohar to win that and she was so close to going two games up and has clearly worked so hard to improve her game, but Sherbini’s skill level is just so high, and she has that edge in term of experience in winning.
“So she just had that extra flair and finesse and when she has an injury it almost goes up a level. Maybe she did go short too often, which is why she made so many errors, but when she really had to pull it out the bag she could, and she did!”
With El Sherbini’s victory in Hull being her third British Open title triumph, while she has also won a staggering five World titles at just 25, Opie believes the increased competitiveness in the women’s game means her record should already be considered pre-eminent over eight-time World Champion Nicol David.
The 1991 British Open champion said: “I think Nour’s record is perhaps even better than Nicol David’s because of the extra depth of the women’s game nowadays. Obviously, Nicol fantastic player, great record, and a fine ambassador for squash and great professional but the depth just wasn’t there.
“I have to say I was quite disappointed when I went to the British Open when Laura (Massaro) won and to the worlds in Amsterdam and I felt like the standard hadn’t improved since my day but now after watching that final on Sunday you have to say it has gone to another level.
“To be honest, I think these two will just push on and there may be a gap for a while to the rest of the ladies.
“Also, for next season Sherbini will have had a rest, she will get over her niggles and come back fresher and if she works on her fitness and lower body strength, she can lift her level again and she may well need to as right now I think that Nouran (Gohar) is probably the fitter of the two.”
World No.2 Gohar’s determination been underlined by her recent addition of coach Rodney Martin to her team and Opie is fascinated by this development in the struggle for dominance at the apex of the women’s game.
The four-time World Team Championship winner said: “That will be an interesting one as I don’t know much about Rodney as a coach. He was very natural as a player, but you would have to say it underlines how determined Gohar is to close that gap with Sherbini.
“But it is a move that shows ambition, and it will be interesting to see how it works out going across next season.”
On the 30th anniversary of her defining moment with that British Open title triumph, which was the first time a British women had won her home major in 30 years, Opie admits the relief at finally winning the game’s oldest major was all-consuming.
She said: “I played the whole English team to win it and that was quite stressful in itself as we had a great standard with Martin (Le Moignan), Sue Wright, Susan Horner, Cassie Jackman and myself.
“But also, that was my fifth final and I had questions asked over my temperament and the final piece of the jigsaw was working with Graeme Jones, the sports psychologist. By that time, I didn’t have a coach that year, I just had a guy called John Robinson feeding me the ball, he was my only coaching input and also Anette Pilling, the former English junior coach, was my ball feeder.
“Graeme brought so much calm to me and that allowed me to just focus on playing my game and it made all the difference in ’91.
“It was such a huge weight off my shoulders as no British women had won the British for 30 years, but it was also a strange one as you look around and it’s like: ‘Is this it? All that?’ Looking back now I can say it was a great achievement but at the time it was an overwhelming sense of relief.
“I think I was second to Liz McColgan in the sports journalist’s women sportswoman of the year, but I guess that was the whole thing about no British woman having won it for 30 years.”
Looking back to her rivalry with Dame Susan Devoy, the 12-time major winner who beat her in three British Open finals and two World Open title matches, Opie reckons she has had to readjust her appraisal of the women’s G.O.A.T (greatest player of all time) after last Sunday’s final.
The two-time world championship runner-up said: “Before the Egyptians for me Susan was the GOAT, although now we would have to dispute that with the Egyptians, but she was the full package and so mentally strong as well.
“That first British Open final with Susan in ’84 was really the match that really was above all else.
“That was when I was working with Jonah, and I guess I felt there was so much pressure being piled on and perhaps Jonah and I weren’t the right personalities for each other, and I lost my touch and my natural game a bit.
“Jonah instilled discipline, fitness and the importance of diet in me but the missing link was getting my head right and when my work with Graeme paid off, I finally got the job done at the British in ’91.”