By RJ Mitchell
Jonah Barrington believes that 2021 was a year that had it all in the men’s game.
In part two of his exclusive review of the last 12 months, the squash icon was bullish about the health of the game, despite continuing disruption caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In a thrilling year on the tour, both Mohamed ElShorbagy and Ali Farag achieved a World No.1 ranking, though it was current World No.2 Paul Coll who concluded the year in the richest form. In Mostafa Asal, meanwhile, who claimed the US Open and PSA World Tour Finals and has reached a career high of World No.5, the game has a new rising star who will have his sights firmly set on top spot in 2022.
Farag ended the year as World No.1, and captured the first title of 2022, the Houston Open.
Reflecting on the year of drama, Barrington said: “It has been an especially strange year with Ali Farag properly in place at No.1, Mohamed El Shorbagy infiltrating for a brief month and then essentially disappearing and Paul Coll quietly on the march and increasingly close to being the man to beat.
“Add to that Mostafa Asal, the exciting and volatile youngster, threatening to take the palace by storm, who has an extraordinary ability and an X-factor, which with a measure of containment in a couple of areas will still see his presence absolutely vital for both squash aficionados and the general public who may be new to the game.
“Indeed we have seen a standard of squash that has been compelling, dramatic and mesmeric at times and 2021 truly had a bit of everything in it.”
Coll and Farag met five times in 2021, with Coll finishing the year 3-2 against the Egyptian.
Turning his attention to the burgeoning rivalry between Farag and Coll, the game’s top two ranked players, Barrington’s admiration is clear: “Ali is a marvellous squash player, with an outstanding skill set, remarkable natural ease of movement and nature’s gentleman to boot.
“In the most recent CIB Squash Open Black Ball Tournament [in which the Egyptian lost 3-0 to Coll in the final] in his post-match interview he could so easily, and with some justification, parroted the regrettable excuses for his defeat emanating publicly from one or two others.
“But Ali’s respect for Paul Coll swiftly overrode that. He is a terrific champion in all ways and the sport is most fortunate to have him.
“For his part Paul has moved into world class and his progress in recent times and his progress under coach Robert Owen and his mental guide Bart Wijnhoven means he now has the composure, balance and stealthy variations to his formal skill set which have brought him to the brink of being World No.1.
“To win in Cairo is one of the ultimate motivations for non-Egyptians; Paul and [England’s World No.5] Sarah-Jane Perry have both achieved that under the guidance of Robert Owen and Paul has served notice on Ali for 2022!”
ElShorbagy reached the summit in August, but finished the year as World No.3
On World No.3 Mohamed ElShorbagy, who reached World No.1 in August but then suffered a prolonged downturn in form, Barrington said: “When it comes to Mohamed, well quite simply he hit a brick wall, the tank was emptied and he has needed rest and recovery. He will, I personally hope, be in full battle mode when he returns to good health. He is a great player.”
Continuing his assessment of the elite echelon of the game, the former World No.1 believes there is plenty more to get excited about: “Diego Elias is such an intelligent quality squash player, yet he will miss the boat unless he marries what he has further learned from the inestimable and great maverick Jonathon Power to a regime of continual daily discipline rather longer than at best a few weeks.
“Meanwhile, Tarek Momen endures with his superior speed still seemingly intact and a quite unique game, utilising at times only the front court!
“Regarding [ElShorbagy’s] brother, Marwan, he should not seek what is not necessary but should accept that what happens off the court too often is not conducive to success on it. He strikes the ball really well and has a superb squash brain.
“Mention must also be made of Joel Makin, whose work ethic is second to none.”
Barrington says that the dominance of Egyptians in the top 20 places should concern other countries.
While Barrington, who won six British Open titles between 1967-973, doesn’t foresee any great movement below the players mentioned, he says he considers the general depth of talent as improving, which he describes as “very positive for the game going forward.”
Although Barrington admits that the Egyptian dominance of the world rankings is something that worries him, he says it is up to the other nations to break that hegemony. “At the end of 2021 Egypt continued to dominate the men’s game with seven players in the top-10 and 11 in the top-20. This is unhealthy, but not Egypt’s fault!” he explains.
Barrington adds: “If there was a similar dominance emanating from England, Australia, Pakistan or the USA the very same would apply. It is not Egypt’s fault that legions of juniors in Cairo and Alexandria get to play the game and that the junior game is maniacally competitive and that the youngsters get to see the best pros in the world training. That’s something that just does not happen elsewhere.
“Outside the Egyptian bubble, the abiding work ethic to close this gap is not readily visible. That is the challenge the other nations must take up. Enough said.”
Barrington concluded with a tribute to the game's elder statesmen, including former World No.1 James Willstrop.
‘Mr Squash’ was keen to sign off by recognising the enduring quality of some of the game’s elder statesmen.
Barrington concluded: “A final few words and a salute to the enduring ability of our elder statesmen Saurav Ghosal and James Willstrop, with his very special skillset, and Borja Golan, the battered but unbowed Spanish Bull and of course, last, but by no mean’s least, the Colombian Cannonball himself, Miguel Rodriguez.
“Thanks go to the many around the globe who have through ingenuity and labour kept our sport alive during another difficult year, not least here in London, with the Canary Wharf Classic – rammed with a lively crowd every day, that close bear pit atmosphere almost unique to squash and the gladiators delivering many memorable moments.
“I’d just like to wish everyone connected with our game a very Happy New Year!”