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Explosive
Finish to ’03

… Mens’ pros at the outset of New Year…

Global Gallery, January
1 2004

Martin Bronstein, the most respected Squash
Journalist today, reviews a new book on American Squash.

© 2004 All rights
reserved. photos © 2004, Suashtalk, D. Tessier,

BORING
START —EXPLOSIVE FINISH

A very
happy 2004 to all Squashtalk readers. It will be an interesting year,
one of changes brought about by the events of the last month of 2003.

Last
year started as a big yawn and continued that way because the men’s circuit
lacked tournaments and so the rankings stayed virtually the same months
after month, while the WISPA scene, somewhat reduced by the retirement
of Sarah Fitz-Gerald, lacked excitement, all the players seemingly beset
by nerves.

A
MEMORABLE WORLD OPEN IN LAHORE

You have all read by now that incredible series of upsets that occurred
in the men’s world open in Lahore. I cannot remember a tournament with
so many eruptions, so many shock upsets and where the semi-finals were
played without a top four player present. While we were all surprised
by the events in Lahore, there were indications throughout the year. Perhaps
we should have an end-of-year report on the players.

THIERRY
LINCOU – NEW WORLD NUMBER ONE

If you read the results throughout the year, it would not have been hard
to predict this Frenchman’s rise up to the top of the heap. Lincou is
probably the most prepared player on the circuit, with two trainers advising
him on ever aspect of his game. Carefully picking his tournaments, Lincou
reached the final or semi-final of almost every one. This made him the
most consistent player from the top ten. Lincou has always said that he
didn’t look for spectacular jumps up the rankings and that his whole PSA
career has been one steady upward curve. The only hiccup was a couple
of years ago when he broke his hand in a freak gym accident. If this very
likeable and personable Dad ( his girl friend gave birth in 2003) can
maintain his consistency in 2004, there is no reason why he cannot maintain
his number one spot. We can only hope that his success will give French
squash a real boost and encourage the bosses to stage some major tournaments.

AMR
SHABANA – NEW WORLD CHAMPION

Let’s be honest, nobody in their right mind would have bet on this fiery,
hugely talented little Egyptian becoming world champion. He gave indications
of his ability to last a whole tournament when he won in Seville early
last year, but this witty (he is the Egyptian Jonathon Power) Cairo native
admits that he can rarely make himself train seriously ("I only party
twice a week now") for two weeks in a row. When he did, it produced
wonderful results, but then in the US Open he lost badly in the first
round and he went into a mental tailspin, that saw him bobble around in
the 11-18 rankings.

What
happened in Lahore? Luck of the draw was part of it and the similarity
in climate to his own country may have been a factor. But by his own words,
Shabana ‘played fantastic squash.’ He knocked out the tough Englishman
Bradley Ball in the first round, did the same to Peter Genever in the
second round and then brought off one of the shocks of the tournament
when he defeated the reigning world champion David Palmer in the third
round. True Palmer had a thigh injury but the match went to five and Shabana
kept focussed to outlast his ailing opponent.
His victory over Anthony Rickets, the fifth seed, in the quarters was
even better. Ricketts was the real comer in 2003 and was carving his way
through everybody. He even led the fifth game 14-10, but Shabana can hit
wicked winners and he saved five match balls before burying a Ricketts
serve into the nick at 16-all to win. Now that’s chutzpah. Shabana defeated
countryman Karim Darwish in the semis and then – once again against all
expectations – beat Lincou in the final. (again taking the final point
by smacking a serve into the nick). His victory jumped him up to world
number five in the new rankings as well as making him the Egyptian number
one. Hey, ho, back to the Pyramids ! (?)

LEE
BEACHILL – NEW WORLD NUMBER FOUR.

This somewhat enigmatic lanky Englishman is now where we all though he
should have been a year ago. But he always seemed to have some sort of
bug or injury. A defeat by Gregory Gaultier in the World Team Champs did
his confidence no good at all and there were predictions that he would
not recover from England’s shock defeat by France. But recover he did
in Qatar where he beat Nicol in three and the beat White in the final
He lost to Joe Kneipp in the quarters in Lahore, but his late-year streak
of form has elevated him to the top four.

PETER
NICOL: END OF A DISTINUISHED ERA?

All year Peter Nicol has not only looked vulnerable, but his results have
indicated that his body has had enough. He lost to John White in Qatar,
Karem Darwish in Seville, Anthony Ricketts in the first round of his own
English Open, David Palmer in the British Open, Omar Elborolossy in Toronto,
Lee Beachill in Qatar and Davide Bianchetti in Lahore. There were ankle
problems, viruses and stomach bugs contributing to his defeats, but after
well over 120 tournaments in 12 years, his body has had enough. However,
never count Peter out. He has huge reserves of guts and determination.
And if he regains his number one spot, don’t be surprised.

JOE
KNEIPP – NEW WORLD TOP TENNER.

Joe had some lousy results this year: he told me he was not enjoying his
squash and that his brother Dan, who has been acting as his manager, mentor
and slave-driver, was returning to Australia to continue his university
studies. (His reports for Squashtalk suggest that he could well become
Australia’s first travelling squash writer).

There
were all the signs that Joe, now 30, was about to depart squash for new
pursuits. What did he eat in Lahore? He knocked out Liam Kenny, Alex Gough
and then provided on the of major shocks of the tournament when he beat
world number two John White in straight games. Yes! straight games! Kneipp
followed this up by beating the on-form Lee Beachill in the quarters before
bowing out to Lincou in the semis. But it was a dazzling run that put
Kneipp into the top ten for the first time ever. Has he found a new seam
of excitement in squash? I hope so.

NICK
MATTHEW – THE DARKEST OF DARK HORSES

This time last year, Matthew was ranked 28 in the world. He starts 2004
in 11th spot, pretty good progress by anybody’s standards. While England
looked up to Lee Beachill and James Willstrop for future hopes, Matthew
was almost forgotten. But 2003 saw him lose his image as a hacker and
in beating Joe Kneipp in the US Open, showed a mature squash brain and
a potent mixture of offence and defence. One to keep an eye on.

JAMES
WILLSTROP -FUTURE DOMINATOR

If there is one player with number one/world champion written all over
him, it has to be the new world number 18. Willstrop’s rapid progress
was predictable: two years ago he was ranked 85. Last January he up to
42 (not bad for the new world junior champion) and now he’s in the top
20 and ready to start knocking on the door of the top ten. He gets stronger
by the minute and is afraid of no-one. If he gets the luck of the draws
and keeps his level-headedness, I expect to see this affable Englishman
in the top six at this point next year.

DAVIDE
BIANCHETTI – NEW ITALIAN STALLION

Absolutely maddening, this tall Brescia native. A fabulous player with
strokes, movement, anticipation. Each time I see him play I ask the same
question – why isn’t he in the top ten? Sometime his brain goes walkabout:
was considered the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
But now I hear he is being
trained by Hesham El Attar
, Ahmed Barada’s former coach, who has chosen
Milan as his base for the last decade. Obviously Hesham is getting Bianchetti
on the right track. His victory over Nicol in Lahore will stand as the
highlight of his career. But it was third round victory over the tough
Frenchman Gregory Gaultier that showed what Bianchetti is capable of;
A solid five game win over a healthy player ranked 25 places above him.
Now he is at his highest-ever ranking at 27, the point where, with a few
drop outs, he won’t have to go through qualifying.

….AND
NOW THE DOWNWARDLY MOBILE.

JONATHON
POWER
capped a miserable year (two eye injuries) with a broken
hand that put him out of both Qatar and Lahore, two of the biggest tournaments
of the year. He has dropped to seventh place and will need to put in a
month of solid training once the cast comes off his left arm. As he always
says, if his body is in good shape, he wins. We shall have to wait for
the Tournament of Champions in late February to see if he still has the
desire.

ONG
BENG HEE
has dropped out of the top ten (13) and after two fairly
miserable years, has left the Neil Harvey training camp to move 80 miles
west to Reading which the Aussies have made their England base for 20
years. Some observers have said that Harvey’s approach toughened the young
Malaysian, but it took away his flair. Now he will be training with the
likes of Ricketts and Dan Jenson, we shall be watching him closely to
see if that smile comes back on his face.

MARTIN
HEATH
has dropped from 12th to 24th. Unlike Lincou, Heath has
always looked inwards for guidance and has never been associated with
a coach. He has a degree in sports sciences and has always felt he knew
what was best for him. He is also more interested in exploring the world
than being totally focussed on the little black ball in the white room.

SIMON
PARKE
, one of the finest players produced by England in the last
20 years starts 2004 at number 30. He has lasted well considering he has
played top class squash for at least 18 years. He has given wonderful
service to England as both junior and senior. I am sad that I won’t be
able to see him in the top tournaments as much as before.

(
ALSO READ MY WISPA END-OF-YEAR REPORT
….)