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Jonah Barrington in his playing days

The Jonah Barrington Column: March 2022

One of the sport’s greatest thinkers and a pioneer for the professional game, Jonah Barrington offers his thoughts on all of squash's biggest talking points in a new monthly column – written exclusively for the PSA World Tour website.

In this month’s column, Jonah discusses the recent Windy City Open and Paul Coll’s ascent to World No.1. The six-time British Open champion also gives his opinion on the emergence of Youssef Ibrahim and expresses his admiration for the hard-hitting qualities of Nouran Gohar and the talent on show in the women’s game.

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By Jonah Barrington

Paul Coll is in a very interesting situation. Obviously, he’s never actually been in that position before, and it always interesting to see. Everybody wants to be in that position, you’re hunting and then suddenly you’re in that position where you’re being hunted.

At the Optasia Championships, Ali Farag was talking about being not overly concerned now with the ranking. That was his target, and then he became No.1 and he hasn't got that tag any longer. It’s not something that he goes to sleep and he wakes up and he dreams about any longer.

Now, Mohamed [ElShorbagy] is a very different animal as we know, and the No.1 ranking in the world is very precious to him. I'm not suggesting that the No.1 ranking in the world is more important to him than being a World Champion or British Open champion because he loves to win tournaments. But actually, he's always had an obsession almost about having the No.1 ranking in the world.

Over the period of his career, he has had very extensive phases where he has been the No.1 and that's what he would dearly love to have again. Each individual is very different, and Paul Coll, having just reached that target, then had to respond to being hunted and whatever pressure might come with it. I felt that that he handled it really very, very well, and that his focus was very calm.

The game plan that he had in mind with Robert [Owen] worked very well and he stuck to it. It’s not as if he is clear of everybody because obviously now there is a group that is very close in level and could actually upset the applecart on a particular day. So his response, I thought, was excellent.

Paul Coll celebrates his Windy City Open triumph

It was in keeping with the way he's played over the last 15-18 months when tournaments have been available, and he has kept up the progress and improvement to actually reach that target. But of course, it can become more difficult being in that situation because everybody is after you.

Another player who impressed in Chicago was Youssef Ibrahim. There is talk about him having some kind of similarity to Amr Shabana, which probably tells a tale. He's not Shabana, he’s Ibrahim and has his own way of playing, but to a certain extent, he's been an unknown quantity because he's been tied into the college system in the States.

He's materialised, still within the college system, rather more starkly than Ali Farag did. Because Ali was obviously potentially a mainline world-class contender, this guy has literally stepped into the limelight with scarcely any kind of background in PSA events over an extended period. I think COVID obviously made a hell of a difference because there were no tournaments, so maybe that's the reason why, because he has set aside periods where he's played PSA and he has the experience, as all the Egyptians have, of coming from a strong junior background.

So it's not as if somebody has materialised with no kind of background at all. He's very, very dangerous, he’s obviously, very, very good. His potential is clear cut for everybody to see, and he's got into the mix very quickly.

All players when they come through, they can make an instant impact and then the, in theory, more experienced players get to know how to play the individual. That will be very interesting, because I remember when Mohamed was young and he first started to hit the PSA circuit as a teenager. He actually had immediate success against James [Willstrop], he did well against two or three of the others.

But then they had a good look at him, and I think I think Amr Shabana beat him 10 times on the trot. I think Greg [Gaultier] also beat him probably nine or 10 times on the trot. This is different, there were more players then in that top group who were contending, there haven’t been as many in this last period unfortunately contending for those titles. It'll be interesting to see how the group that is there starts to deal with him because he is obviously very difficult to play.

He’s excellent for the sport because he's got the kind of game that really appeals to crowds and it’s one that may be a high risk area for other players. I wouldn’t see Paul Coll or Joel Makin playing like that, but the way he plays is certainly a huge asset. I would expect him to be in the mix from now on in.

I think they will look at him very closely and then will come up with what they consider to be the best kind of game plan against him. He did remarkably well there.

As for Nouran Gohar, who became the first woman to win a Platinum PSA event without dropping a single game since Nicol David in 2015, she’s a terminating machine. When she materialised as a teenager, it was as if she’d not actually lived in Egypt as a junior because she didn’t actually attack the front of the court like the majority of them, 90 or 95 per cent of them play a front wall game. I always said that in Egyptian junior squash, you could actually do without the back wall, and that was one of the many reasons why they became not only fertile in front of the court games, but also the mobility in the front court, going in and out and the movement into the front of the court.

When you see at the very highest level someone like Tarek Momen’s movement into the front of the court, I don't think Tarek played more than half a dozen length balls when he was a junior and Nouran Gohar is exactly the opposite. Sadly for the opposition, her short game is developing and she is getting some backup now from Rodney Martin as well as her own coaches, who have done a great job with her. But her game has, and this should be the case with all world-class players, a very strong length factor. Ramy Ashour was a brilliant length hitter, which nobody really realised other than those that played him.

Gohar is a fantastic length hitter and power hitter. A lot of men would be very keen to have her power and strength. That’s unbelievably difficult to deal with, so when you get the contrast between Sherbini and Gohar, it’s a wonderful lineup and a wonderful match up.

It’s incredibly difficult to play both of them, and Gohar is unrelenting, her pressure hitting just goes on and on. It doesn't stop after 20 minutes or half an hour, it doesn't stop after three quarters of an hour, it just doesn’t stop. The level those two are playing, with El Hammamy coming up and joining the ranks, is higher than I've ever seen in my life in the women's game.

I came in a long time ago with Heather McKay, who was basically hitting the ball better than all the men who were playing at the time, so it's astonishing what is actually being seen in the women's game at the moment at the top end. There is such a general improvement in the level of those who are contending or trying to contend because the level over the last few years has been absolutely terrific, and a lot of tournaments have been saved by the women’s game, to be quite honest.

So many of the matches have been epic. You’re talking about Joelle [King] who performed really well in Chicago, Camille Serme who hopefully will be coming back pretty shortly, Amanda [Sobhy], who has recovered from a dreadful Achilles problem, as did Joelle. I’ve been there, so I know what that’s like.

There is also SJ [Perry], who won in Egypt, which is very difficult. When Paul won in Egypt, that again was a step forward because it is so difficult to win there. The crowd are very much with their own, which to some extent is understandable, but sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of support for really good play when you’re a foreigner.

The women’s game has probably shown up, in certain ways, the men’s game in the last three or four years. The conduct of the women is exemplary. There have been some unfortunate approaches on court by one or two players in this last period, so I think the men should learn from the women.

Nouran Gohar won the 2022 Windy City Open title

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