Blasberg ’18: Open field in 2015 World Squash Championship

Friday, November 13, 2015

Over the next two weeks, Bellevue, Washington will host the 2015 World Squash Championship, which has a field unlike any other in recent memory. The current landscape of professional squash has a top tier of four players: Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy and Ramy Ashour along with England’s Nick Matthew and the “French General,” Gregory Gaultier.

Complementing this upper echelon is a fluid group of the next 30 ranked players. Some, like elder statesmen Peter Barker and Daryl Selby, have spent considerable time in the world’s top 10. Others, like 18-year-old Peruvian prodigy Diego Elias, are just bursting onto the scene. This year in particular provides ample opportunities for upsets in the seedings, as the world rankings — on which the seedings are based — only take into account tournament results, neglecting the prowess of some of these younger players.

The two favorites to reach the final of this year’s tournament are El Shorbagy and Ashour. They are placed on opposite sides of the draw this year, so their meeting in the final is a legitimate possibility.

El Shorbagy has been as consistently dominant over the past year-and-a-half as anyone in the last decade, holding the world’s number one ranking for over a year. One of El Shorbagy’s greatest strengths is his ability to move past first- and second-round scares and raise his level of play as the match becomes more important.

El Shorbagy has reached two consecutive World Championship finals, but he has lost both at the hands of his compatriot and kryptonite, Ashour. El Shorbagy seems to have a mental block when it comes to playing Ashour, as he often gets an early lead but crumbles as he approaches victory.

But this season, Ashour is arguably less potent. Though his shots and strategy have been very effective, his movement has struggled as he has been sidelined with multiple injuries since the season began in the fall. The World Championship presents a 64-player draw — one more round than a standard PSA event. This means that the physically iffy Ashour will have to play one more match to reach the finals.

On top of this, Ashour has drawn a young talent in Mazen Hesham for a first round match. Hesham’s low seeding does not reflect how dangerous a player he is. A creative and erratic shot maker, Hesham is coming off a successful campaign at the Qatar Classic, where he reached the semifinals before coming up short against Gaultier in a hotly contested, four-game battle.

If Hesham does not beat Ashour, he will definitely take some wind out of his sails for the rest of this grueling tournament. Though the masses would love to see a third straight World Championship final between Ashour and El Shorbagy, Ashour does not have what it takes physically to reach the final in a five-round tournament. Reaching and perhaps winning the final is a task well within El Shorbagy’s grasp.

Gaultier has held the world’s number one ranking for over 10 months and has reached the World Championship final four times, but the prestigious World Championship title has eluded him. In Gaultier’s first trip to the final in 2006, he met David Palmer, a legend of the modern game, and despite getting an early two-game lead, Gaultier lost in an epic encounter. The very next year, he dropped the final to Amr Shabana. In both 2011 and 2013, Gaultier lost classic matches to Matthew.

As the only player of his caliber without a World Championship win, Gaultier has made it clear from the beginning of the year that his goal is to capture the title of this event. His quarter of the draw is manageable — it’s full of players whom he has beaten in the past without trouble.

Gaultier’s stamina has always been an asset, so the extra round of this tournament will not pose an issue for him. The only two people standing in the way of his first World Title are El Shorbagy and himself. Gaultier is set up to meet El Shorbagy in the semi-finals, and the matchup of these two titans of the game has been a seesaw affair of late, with the last meeting going to El Shorbagy. Gaultier has particular trouble countering the immense pace with which El Shorbagy plays.

While Gaultier is a terrific mover and an effective finesse player, El Shorbagy plays with a power and intensity that no one in the world can match. If Gaultier can get past Shorbagy, he will have the confidence to beat anyone he confronts in the final. Mentally, Gaultier can have trouble when he finds himself behind by the middle of the match, especially against a lower seeded player. He often makes matches harder than they have to be by involving referees and forcing shots at the wrong times during rallies. Composure will be paramount to Gaultier’s success in this tournament.

The World Championship this year features a few notable Ivy League alums. Ali Farag, a prodigy from Egypt, has been quickly climbing the rankings since his graduation from Harvard almost two years ago. He won two collegiate individual titles as well as a team title during his time there. He is also coming off a quarterfinal appearance in Qatar, in which he downed two top-15 players. Three weeks before that, he pushed Gaultier to five games after facing four match points in the fourth game. The future is bright for young Farag, and this tournament is an opportunity for him to show his prowess on the largest stage. Farag will take on a qualifier in the first round.

Julian Illingworth, Yale class of 2003, has suffered a recent fall from grace since his career-high world ranking of 24 in 2012. He is now ranked 219, but he received a local wild card spot — a spot in the main draw that the hosting country gives to a native player. He will face a challenge in the first round in the form of fifth-seeded Miguel Ángel Rodríguez.

Nick Talbott ’15 will compete in the qualification rounds of the tournament, which begin Friday. Since his graduation last spring, Talbott has made a name for himself on the European circuit through his hard-nosed play and congenial personality. His ranking has now reached 354, and it will only climb as he gets more comfortable with the travel and training necessary to succeed on the tour.

This year’s World Championship offers an unprecedented sum of prize money: $350,000. With the field as open as it is this year, that money could belong to anyone.