By RJ Mitchell
Former World No.1 and SquashTV commentator Vanessa Atkinson believes that Hania El Hammamy’s victory at the Allam British Open is a breakthrough triumph that mean’s the PSA Women’s World Tour will now be dominated by a ‘big three.’
The 21-year-old had previously only beaten her final opponent Nouran Gohar, the new women’s World No.1, on one occasion in their nine prior meetings, with that victory coming in the semi-final of the 2021 Black Ball Open.
With the reigning World Champion and British Open champion Nour El Sherbini unable to defend the game’s most historic title after being side-lined by the hip injury she sustained in the Black Ball Open final last month, the scene had apparently been set for Gohar to claim a second British title.
But it was World No.3 Hammamy who produced a performance of nerve and verve as she repeatedly took the attack to Gohar who appeared to lack a plan B when her trademark power game was subdued.
All of which has caused 2004 World Champion Atkinson to suggest that we have now entered the era of the ‘big three’ in the women’s game and that El Hammamy must now be considered a serious contender for the PSA World Championships in Cairo in May.
Atkinson said: “Hania is right up there now, she was probably just that little bit behind them [El Sherbini and Gohar] with her results before this and you would probably put Gohar and El Sherbini in a separate bracket but El Hammamy was hot on their heels, now it is a threesome at the top of the game.
“It was a huge win and I don’t think anyone really expected it. Hania was up against a huge head-to-head deficit and had only beaten Nouran once in their previous nine meetings before Sunday’s final, but she is not one to be underestimated and she seems to just thrive against the expectations and has done so many times before.
Hania El Hammamy with the Allam British Open trophy
“I think she was able to play with that little bit more freedom due to the fact that she had slightly less to lose. The first game really sent a message to Gohar and was huge in setting the tone and I think Gohar also struggled a bit with the expectations.
“Although she didn’t play badly, she perhaps played safer and I also felt she reverted to type a bit and hit the ball a million miles an hour and played at a very fast pace and didn’t utilise the whole court and take the ball in really short.
“On the other hand, El Hammamy did take a bit more risk on her shots and also used more variety and for me that was the difference. I think previously Hania had little patches in matches where there were more errors but in the final, we didn’t see that.
“In her semi, which was a really tight match with Joelle King there were errors, but King’s tactics seemed to upset El Hammamy a bit by using a slow ball into the back that bit more. In the final El Hammamy seemed really comfortable with Gohar’s high tempo and she just didn’t make any errors.
“She also played very attacking squash getting right up on the volley and taking the ball in short and really using a variety of shots while also keeping her error count very low and the focus and her consistency, considering her age was pretty outstanding.”
When it comes to the rest of the field Atkinson believes that there were big positives to take for some of the other leading ladies: “For me Joelle King has been playing really well and is right up there and back in the mix and she played a great semi with El Hammamy and also made semi-final in Cairo in March,” said the former World No.1.
Joelle King in action against Hania El Hammamy in their semi-final
“Maybe Amanda Sobhy didn’t look quite so good in her semi with Nouran Gohar as the similarities in their game in terms of pace mean it is not a great match up for Amanda and I feel you do need to use more of a mixture of pace against Gohar. That said it is great to see that Sobhy is definitely starting to get back into form.
“I think mention must also be made of Nour El Tayeb who actually beat Hania El Hammamy in the Black Ball. The fact she is challenging at the top level again is astounding considering how long she was out for, never mind the fact that she’s doing it while touring with a baby!
“Nour is improving with every event and I have no doubt she will be back inside top 10 in no time.”
Atkinson, who was behind the microphone in her role as expert summariser for SquashTV, also believes the markers are increasingly positive for England’s rising star Georgina Kennedy, who took a game from the new British Open champion El Hammamy in a gripping four game third round defeat.
“Georgina Kennedy will always be a difficult player for people to get past just for the physicality she brings to the game and she doesn’t make many errors, gets lots of balls back and is very determined and is very consistent with her type of play.
“But at the moment her squash isn’t quite up there with the very best in terms of the top three but even they still have to bring their A-game with Georgina as she is still so strong and just makes it physically very tough out there so she will always be a little bit of a threat.
“That said there are still so many improvements that Kennedy can make and that’s what makes her interesting to watch as she is already playing at such a high level and inside the top 10 but there is so much more to come and she is still developing as a player.
“She is also still really inexperienced at this level, so I do expect Georgina to improve in leaps and bounds over the next few seasons.”
Atkinson is also adamant that when it comes to this year’s World Championship no one should write off Nour El Sherbini despite her injury issues: “I am sure Nour El Sherbini will be right up there as she has had injuries before and she tends to need match play slightly less than other players do to come back,” said Atkinson.
Nour El Sherbini
“Nour is a very relaxed character and it just appears like she doesn’t need the matches in the bank like other players do to get back to her best form.
“She has come back after injury and won tournaments before, so, as long as the injury sorts itself out and she is able to get some training done I would expect her to be right in the mix of whatever tournament she plays in when she comes back.
“But when it come to the women’s game in general the level is absolutely incredible. The girls are playing at a pace that I haven’t seen before. It’s attacking and there are lots of players who play very differently so you get lots of contrasts within matches, so it is as exciting as it’s ever been.”
“You have three at the top and it is very difficult to predict a winner and that is great for the women’s game.”