Saturday 18 October 2008

Semis bring more upsets

Vicky BotwrightA fairytale ending to Vicky Botwright's playing career remained a possibility tonight after coming through her semi-final against Jenny Duncalf.

However, the match that would guarantee a British woman finalist for the first time since 2003 didn't end in the way either would probably have wished it, with Duncalf retiring due to injury at the end of the second game ...

Jenny had taken an injury break early in the first game, and it was clear that she was not moving freely after resuming. Botwright took advantage to take the game 11-3.

Though Duncalf briefly rallied in the second, where she appeared to be surviving on pure instinct to nullify her England team mate's attacks, it was not enough, and Botwright took the second 11-6 with a backhand cross-court kill. A few moments later player colleagues in Duncalf's corner waved to the officials that she would be playing no further part, and it was all over.

It was a sad end to the week for Duncalf, who had achieved one of the best wins of her career earlier in the week when she defeated Natalie Grinham for the first time in 13 attempts. She has now beaten both Grinham sisters in major tournaments in 2008, after putting Rachael out of the British Open in Liverpool earlier in the year, and surely is now due a top tour title.

Botwright admitted in the post-match interview that she had “always failed miserably at the Nationals”, but today she appeared to play unencumbered by memories of under-achievement on this same court.

David v Perry

In the final Botwright will meet defending champion Nicol David, who safely navigated her way around the upsets that had littered both draws this week. Her semi-final was the first time that I had seen David play – a rather sad fact that belies that dearth of WISPA events in the UK over the past few years (as I've said in these pages before, how about a Super Series-type event in London for the women?).

Her opponent, Northern Ireland's Madeleine Perry, took an early lead, attacking to deny the Malaysian length, and was quickly 4-1 up. David's drops also seemed easily readable by the Irishwoman, but just as she was gaining momentum her own short game began to be exposed, with balls chipped far too high above the tin,

Nicol David v Madeleine PerryThe World Champion was quick to exploit the time this bought her, and started to work her opponent, increasingly finding a rhythm that had been disrupted earlier in the game. A couple of strokes and a tinned ball by Perry handed David the game 11-6.

At the start of the second Perry had chances that she was unable to take. Apparently having worked out where David was fallible, she was increasingly frustrated at her mistakes when preparing to exploit them. 9-6 down, Perry started to move David about the court more, varying her game and causing the world number one to commit the same errors that were plaguing her game.

In many ways this was as frustrating game for the spectator as it probably was for Perry. David finally wrapped up the match in a third game which was again notable by the frequency of Perry's mistakes. The 11-6, 11-8, 11-6 win will suggest a routine victory when this draw is looked back on in years to come, but Perry's obvious talent meant that on the day it was far more closer than it will appear in the scoring books.

It's a shame I haven't had the opportunity to see that talent more over the years.

After the game the winner spoke of “sticking to what you have to do” when asked how she would approach her (surprise?) opponent in the final. If Botwright is to make the fairytale come true she has to prevent David sticking to what she does best – as Madeleine did, albeit briefly, today.

Shabana v Ashour

It was not just the top woman player I had never managed to catch on these shores; I had also been waiting a long time to see Ramy Ashour (whose title of 'hottest young prospect' now appears to have transferred to Mohammed El Shorbagy).

Ashour came on to court for his semi against defending champion Shabana looking like he had wandered in from the beach. Relaxed in a floppy purple ATCO t-shirt, it was if he had been asked to stand in for a knock-up while Shabana waited for his real opponent to arrive.

What struck me on seeing Ramy for the first time was his size; a lot bigger in the upper body than he appears in photos (or even on video), he reminded me of Christiano Ronaldo – another athlete who at first appears rather lanky, but is far bigger and imposing when seen against and opponent.

Shabana still has the swagger that I first witnessed years back in Nottingham when he faced David Palmer in the final of the British Open. On that day he appeared to spend most of the time on the floor, the swagger apparently more about posturing to the officials and the crowd more than an indication of nonchalant self-belief.

You don't win three world titles without mental toughness in squash, however, and this he has obviously developed in the intervening years. But I have a nagging suspicion that playing in Britain – for whatever reason (Amr has voiced opinions about the organisation of competitions recently)– brings out a frustration in him that arises at crucial times. It was evident in the Liverpool British Open against Palmer, and I detected it in the final of the Super Series against Gaultier

The guy sitting next to me watching the match reckoned that Shabana had never won a tournament in Britain, and that he was out to prove something to himself this week.

These two clearly know each other's game inside and out, and the first four games were a exhibition in attacking squash, and a great demonstration of the advantages that the WSF feel that PAR scoring – voted on in the AGM this week – can bring to the sport.

Shabana tried repeatedly to mix it up and get Ashour (almost literally) off his back. The younger man's anticipation is remarkable for such a big player playing off his opponent's shoulder in the front court, and his access to such a range of shots with those long limbs was akin to a Victorian-era signalman, casting his eyes over an array of shiny levers before selecting which one to pull. He simply has every shot in the book.

At 2-1 up and 8-7 in the fourth, Shabana appeared to have regained control, but a couple of reckless points brought it back to 9-9, and an attempt at a kill off Ashour's serve which flew back into his body gave game ball to Ashour, which he converted. It seemed a strange lack of concentration within sight of victory, and the younger man's 7-0 almost instant lead in the fifth suggested that Shabana had given up. A number of mistakes, mainly tins, by Ashour saw Shabana take seven points of his own in losing 7-11.

What is it about Shabana in Britain? This was the third match (see above) that he had seemed to have become upset by something, but I didn't expect it it happen the World Championship semi-final.

He didn't comment at the end, but maybe his thoughts will come out in the future. Shabana is one of the most articulate players, and is not afraid to voice his opinions.

Darwish v Palmer

One player who always seems to hold it together mentally when it really matters is Palmer. And he kept it right together here, even though he appeared to be treated rather harshly on a number of occassions by the officials.

Darwish was dogged in his receiving and deceptive at the front wall. He took the first 11-6.

Darwish v PalmerI don't think I've ever seen Palmer lose a match 3-0, and the game got physical in the second as Darwish come out the better on a number of contentious decisions. The end of the game was particularly dramatic, with Palmer diving to retrieve at 8-9 before springing up to stay in the rally, before Darwish killed the ball cross-court, which brought a fist-pump from the Egyptian.

A couple of outsanding rallies followed, before Darwish again deciding that enough was enough and killed the ball to take the game 11-9. It was telling that he stayed on court for much of the between-game break, and clearly he saw the finish line before him.

The third saw another couple of questionable lets go in Darwish's favour, but the Egyptian kept his nerve to win 11-8. At the end he told master of ceremonies Andy Nikeas that the felt “fresh for the final”. It will be his – and Ashour's – first.

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