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Matthew Prevails over Willstrop
Aug 20, 2005, Martin Bronstein at Sheffield, The Crucible.
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Jenny Duncalf grits her way past rapidly improving Alison Waters
(photo © 2005 Fritz Borchert)

Nick Matthew shrugged off the after-effects of his five game marathon win over Lee Beachill in yesterday’s quarters to overwhelm James Willstrop in a semi-final that was worthy of a final in any tournament. I have never seen Matthew play with such confidence and such venom – and that is the right word to describe the way he was striking the ball. He set such a high pace that Willstrop could only hope to hang on and concentrate on getting the shots back. Cleverly Matthew knew his approach was the way to reduce Willstrop’s use of his vast array of shots. As the match wore on it became more apparent that he was reading Willstrop’s game like a primer, almost moving to intercept Willstrop’s response as soon as the ball had left his own racket.

The word that keeps on coming to mind was concentration. Gone were Matthew’s usual niggling arguments with the referee. Indeed the official was hardly used as both players played to the same code; very little contact and almost no argument. This was squash at a high level and Matthew must come out as the star of this tournament, firstly beating Stu Boswell, then Beachill and now Willstrop.

From the very start Matthew took charge – his first point was a forehand slam straight nick and then ran to a 7-3 lead. Willstrop fought his way back into the game to lead 8-7 with a 5 point run but Matthew stopped the run with a dead winner from the next serve and pushed to win 11-8.

Semi final upset action: Nick Matthew defeats Yorkshire rival James Willstrop (photo © 2005 Fritz Borchert)

He started the second badly with two errors to help Willstrop lead 4-0, but he was unworried. He controlled the rallies once more, some rallies being constructed like an end game in chess. Regardless of what Willstrop did, or how good his drop shots, Matthew was there, sending the ball to the back of the court, once more to control the T. He wo9n that game 11-9 and once more started the third game badly as Willstrop finally managed to take control to lead 5-2. Matthew won the next point and then Willstrop hit three errors in a row, a critical lapse of concentration. This allowed Matthew to run through to lead 8-5, at which point it seemed all over. But it wasn’t: Willstrop fought for every point and the next five minutes were as intense as I have ever witnessed. Matthew desperate to get it over in three games, Willstrop desperate to find a way to victory. The score move to 10-10 with the spectators squirming with every shot. Matthew looked a little ragged and there was a suggestion that the efforts of two mammoth matches were catching up with him. Willstrop hit a slam to length that was pure perfection and finished the game with a forehand drive to win 12-10.

Question: was Matthew finished? Would the loss of the game affect him psychologically? Matthew answered the questions with finality as he took hold of the fourth game by the scruff of the neck and shook it until Willstrop simply let go. The pressure over the previous four games had simply been too much for Willstrop. He admitted later that he was surprised that Matthew would come out playing such sharp squash. I think he lost heart at being unable to control the match for any length of time and so Matthew won the fourth in eight minutes to end 63 minutes of pure gold. The next question is whether he will still have strength to give Peter Nicol a decent challenge in tomorrow’s final.

By rights John White should not have been in the semi-finals against Peter Nicol. Last night at around 11.30pm he faced match ball against Olli Tuominen 8-10 in the fifth. Tuominen went for a backhand drop that hit the tin, which brought a huge smile to White’s face as he looked up at the heavens. Tuominen ended the next rally with a sloppy attempt at a slam into the nick which again hit tin. It is a shot that he will remember for a long time. “I don’t know why I did it,” he told me later, still shaking his head in disbelief. White went on to win in overtime. He was on court today at 4pm just 15 hours later and Nicol knew what he had to do to win – just keep standing upright.

White started slamming the ball hard from the off, cracking the ball as only he can. All Nicol could do was react and get the ball back to the front wall. Nicol now knows what it must be like facing a firing squad as the ball came hurtling at him from all angles. But Nicol has been there before and he did get most of them back. This was squash played at the sort of speed that would have been impossible 20 years ago. White knew he couldn’t out-rally the in-form Nicol so he had to go for winners, he had to keep slamming the ball low and hope that he could prevail with outright winners. A valiant try but it didn’t work and he lost the first game 11-5 in 11 minutes.

The second game was more of the same with White doing his impersonation of a multi-barrelled howitzer: it was glorious fun and it worked – for a time. He led 5-2 but then the fatigue caught up with him and the game turned. It was now Nicol who was cracking the shots and White who was being twisted and turned as he lunged to get the ball back which he did with some amazing stretching and running. But Nicol had the upper hand and he climbed back to 7-7.

White ended the next long rally with a slam into the nick to get to 8-7 but Nicol evened the score with a forehand boast and went on to take the game 11-8.

White was looking pained and he spent the third with that pained look on his face but he never stopped trying. One long rally had a spectator – who could not stand the look of pain on White’s face – imploring ‘ End the bloody rally’. But White does no know how to give up and amazingly led the third game 5-1, his shots finding all the right spots on the court. As we knew he would Nicol took control again and in one rally distributed the ball so well to the four corners of the court (for White it was more like the four corners of the earth) that on his final shot White just watched the ball go past him, unable to move. And so Nicol won the game 11-8 to take his place in the final. White, however, shared the glory as all the spectators applauded his tremendous courage in fighting on even when he knew, as we all did, what the outcome would be .

Semi-finals day was started in fine style in front of the Lord Mayor of Sheffield and the Lady Mayor (In England that is not an insult even though it sounds like Lady Mare) by Jenny Duncalf, step-daughter of England coach David Pearson, and Alison Waters, a player who had grown from little girl to young woman in the last year and picked up some very good results on the way.

Waters started very slowly - mentally and physically – allowing Duncalf a fairly easy first game. Waters was being beaten at the back wall not so much because of Duncalf’s good length but more because she was shaping for the ball too late with the result either she never got it up or if she did it was a very weak reply.

Duncalf (ranked nine) was consistent from the start and while not a flashy player, knows how to hit good length and when to put in the short ball. She is a perfect example of the English school of squash which produceS efficient players who rarely lose badly.

Waters (ranked eighteen and rising) has fast hands anD some interesting shots at the front of the court. Waters seemed to lack confidence from the start, lost the first game 9-1 before settling down to contest the second all the wasy to 4-5 at which point she committed three silly errors and lost the game 4-9 after 16 minutes of hard work.

From the beginning of the third Waters seemed settle and played as though she had Duncalf’s measure. She played length for length and put in the occasional boast as well as her own shot a backhand cross court volley when her opponent is expecting another length shot down the wall. The serve changed hands four times at 4-all at which point Duncalf hit the ball out of court to give Waters her fifth point. A fine forehand chopped drop shot put her at 6-4 and then lo! A backhand boast did not hit the tin! This put Waters firmly in the lead at 7-4 and although Duncalf won a couple of rallies she was unable to add to her score to lose 9-4.

This was the Waters we had heard about, the player that one informed observer judges as the player of the future. We looked forward to a battle of high quality squash, but just as quickly as Waters’ form appeared it disappeared. Inexplicably the errors rolled off the racket and Duncalf cruised to an 8-0 lead at which point only a major miracle could save Waters from an early shower. There are no miracles in Sheffield on Saturday and although she got one point the game was over 9-1 in just nine minutes. Waters aims to be in the top ten by the end of the season but she won’t achieve that aim without a much harder edge to her game and a lot more concentration.

Vicki Botwright the world number seven gave Madeleine Perry, ranked two spots below her, a lesson that she should do well to learn and that is that the courageous player will beat the percentage player. Perry is a solid player who moves well and has been around long enough to avoid all the silly errors. But Botwright has avoided the stigma of Brit players and takes every opportunity to go short and prevent those boring duels up and down the wall.

Mind you, it was not an easy victory for Botwright. Each game was hard fought and the match lasted longer than the Nicol vs White semi. But Botwright always found the right angle or the sharp volley drop to put her ahead.

The first game lasted 17 minutes, the second 13 minutes and the third 23 minutes, which is long by WISPA standards. Perry almost saved the third game but lost it in the tie break 10-8. Botwright is turning into an interesting and accomplished player and it is worth keeping an eye on her in the next season.

RESULTS: Mamut English Open Squash Championship, Sheffield, Yorkshire

Semi finals:
[3] Peter Nicol (ENG bt [6] John White (SCO) 11-5 11-8 11-8 (43 min)
[5] Nick Matthew (ENG) bt [4] James Willstrop (ENG) 11-8 11-9 10-11(0-2) 11-4 (63 min)

Semifinals (saturday):
[1] Jenny Duncalf (ENG) def [4] Alison Water (ENG) def 9-1 9-4 4-9 9-1 (54 min)
[2] Vicky Botwright (ENG) def [3] Madeline Perry (IRL)9-7 9-5 10-8
(57 min)

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