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Ashour - Darwish - Botwright - David !
Oct 17, 2008, by Martin Bronstein for SquashTalk.com , Independent News; © 2008 SquashTalk LLC       

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After Ramy Ashour had beaten world number one Amr Shabana in five pulsating games, renowned coach Malcolm Willstrop said it could well have been the best squash match he has ever seen.

It would be hard to argue with that – certainly there can have been few matches to surpass it for sheer speed and shotmaking. But then, you could expect nothing less when the top Egyptians play each other.

Yesterday I raved about the Palmer/Willstrop quarter-final. Sorry guys, these two Egyptians raised the level by several notches. The speed of thought, reaction and range of shots and winners were, at times, unbelievable. I looked over to the seats on the right side of the court,which is where all the players watch, and from the expressions on their faces – and remember these are hardened professionals – were the same as the other spectators – delight and disbelief. At times all I could do was giggle at what I was seeing.

That the young Ramy came out on the winning end in this most important tournament, in front of a packed audience and against the best player in the world says it all about his skill, his temperament – and his future.

Ashour won the first game simply because he was fast out of the blocks, hitting his long drop shots, volleying with millimetre precision and reading Shabana like a book. “Perhaps Amr was asleep in that first game,”joked Ashour.

Well he certainly woke up in the second game and at 4-4 Shabana was in full flow, picking up all Ashour’s drop shots, slotting in his own usual array of winners, and what is more important, holding his shot, to the point where he was no longer being read. Not many people send Ashour the
wrong way, but Shabana can do it. Furthermore Shabana was reading Ashour; for example after being forced to play a backwall boast he raced to stand behind Ashour who held his shot and would go for a forehand drop, usually a winner. But Shabana was on his way to the corner to drive it to the back. Suddenly Shabana was in charge and he could not be shaken off. He moved to an 11-7 win, taking the final point by smacking Ashour’s serve into the tin.

The third game continued where the second left off, Shabana showing why he has been world number one for almost three years and dominating the play. The rallies were constantly fast and surprising, Shabana capable of covering the court at a phenomenal speed and Ashour volleying anything and everything – with accuracy. Inside 11 minutes Shabana had it won 11-7 and looked ready to make his way into the final.

That was still the scenario in the fourth despite the first three points going to Ashour. A mere blip, dear boy, a mere blip. A delayed cross court left Ashour stranded and it was 3-3, A dropping duel at the front left was won this time by Shabana and then a tight, fast forehand was too good for Ashour to scrape off the wall. Shabana now led 5-3 and kept his nose ahead to lead 8-6 with the speed of play increasing rather than decreasing. And then came THE point, which, both players were to agree later, could have changed the course of the match. Shabana was at the front and he slammed the ball towards the back. Ashour had anticipated left and was on his way when he saw the ball going the other way. Somehow he twisted in the air and manged to get the frame of his racket on the ball, which spiralled upwards and hit the front wall. Shabana was in shock at the ball coming back, but it dropped nicely in front of him and he had the court at his mercy. He went for a soft drop – and hit the tin. A huge roar from the crowd and even Shabana had to smile, giving his young opponent a friendly shove on the way to the back of the court. The score was now 8-7 and another Shabana error made it 8-8. Even then he managed to send Ashour the wrong way to lead 9-8.

Ashour then fashioned one of his backhand cross court nicks which had Shabana diving full length to pick it up - and failing. Then a penalty stroke against Shabana gave game ball to Ashour and an unsettled Shabana fired the serve into the tin.

Ashour had won the most important three points in his life.

The fifth game was a disaster for Shabana: four errors and some bad judgment calls and he was 7-0 down. He tried to make his comeback and was doing well getting to 6-9 and sending the temperature in the arena up to boiling point. And then he tried an overhead kill which hit the tin. A bad error to put Ashour at match ball; Ashour gave away a point with a tinned backhand and then drove a ball to back forcing Shabana to dive to play a backwall boast. This time Ashour made no mistake to take the point. The excitement finally had finally come to an end to prolonged applause from the delighted squash fans who filled every available seat.

When questioned about the fifth game Shabana said:

“I should have taken my chances in the fourth game. And I didn’t take those chances. In the fifth game I was still thinking about the fourth game. When you play Ashour you have to take your chances. He played very well, but he had to beat me.”

For his part Ashour said he thought it was the best match he’d ever played. “I’ve never been so focussed. I never thought about anything but the shot. I tried to keep him in the back and tight and as soon as there was a loose ball, I would go for the nick. In the second and third game he kept
taking me to the front of the court which annoyed me. The only time I was worried in the match was in the fifth game when he started his comeback and he got, I was really worried,” he said, the words tumbling out of his mouth with the excitement of the win. If he meets Palmer in the final on
Sunday, as expected, it will be interesting to see how these two contrasting stylists deal with each other.

The extraordinary story of Vicki Botwright’s farewell tournament took another strange turn today in the semi-finals of the world open when her fellow Brit, Jenny Duncalf, retired injured after the second game putting Botwright into her first-ever world open final. Let me assure you dear reader, that not one person in the world would have bet a cent, a sou or a farthing on this bizarre happening.

Before the game against the reigning champion Rachel Grinham, she asked the announcer to interview her because she would never get the chance to be interviewed again. “When do you want me to interview you?” he asked. “After I lose,” Botwright replied. Well we all know that she beat Grinham, continued her run against the talented Alison Waters in the quarters and
has now had a virtually free ride into the final after the sad injury to Duncalf. So Botwright has now been interviewed three times, each time as a winner. Fairy tales do come true.

A disconsolate Duncalf said that she has never walked off before. “But I was not doing myself justice. I felt a twinge in my match against Kasey Brown in the second round,a bit of dead leg. But it was in the second rally in the match today when I lunged for a drop shop and felt something
go. I tried to continue and then asked for an injury break. The physio said I had injured the IT band in my right thigh,”Duncalf explained.

She continued the game trailing 3-1 but quickly lost it. However she cam back for the second game and started to play well, gaining a 6-2 lead: the rallies were short and not very exciting and there was not a lot to cheer about as Botwright took nine points in a row to win 11-6. After they
had left the court Duncalf announced her retirement and Botwright had reached the pinnacle of career in her last ever tournament before concentrating on her job as head coach at the National Squash Centre.

When David Palmer came off the court after being by Karim Darwish in straight games, he kicked a bottle of water standing in his way, sending it hurtling 20 years across the carpet. His anger was understandable: he had played badly and made the sort of errors that he rarely makes. He mis-hit, gave away too many strokes and lunged at volleys sending them into the tin. This is not the normal David Palmer and certainly not the same player we saw demolish James Willstrop just 24 hours earlier. As one observer said, he has reached the age where he can’t produce that form two days running.

Darwish was consistent without being brilliant. He is not the same sort of shotmaker as his countrymen although he can hit the odd kill. He tends to err on the side of caution which may have been just the right tactic today, allowing Palmer to digh is own grave. Darwish knows how to hang in on a long rally and while the two put together some tough rallies, they lacked the élan of the first semi-final and of Palmer’s quarter final yesterday.

Palmer was simply off form; there is not a lot more to write. He lost the first game 6-11, looked as though he had worked his way back into form in the second, recovering from 2-7 to 9-10 in probably his best run of play of the match. This must have been worrying to Darwish because his domination had been ebbing away, but he ended the game with his best shot of the match, a spectacular overhead backhand kill to win 11-9.

There was a similar scenario in the third game, much of the action in the back of the court with occasional sorties to the front but Darwish always keeping the upper hand to lead 9-4. Once again Palmer upped his effort to work his way back to 8-9 with the suggestion that he was on the edge of
turning the match around. Darwish had made a couple of errors in his nervousness, but he stopped the rot by whacking the next serve into the nick and then whooped as Palmer finished the match with a forehand boast into the tin. That final shot summed up Palmer’s bad day at the office. In
their previous twelve meetings Palmer had come out on top nine times. Tempus fugits, age catches up and the young turks take over. But don’t count David Palmer out just yet.

Darwish, the world junior champion eight years ago has taken a long time to mature but he has done it slowly and his own way. How he will handle the dash and flash of Ramy Ashour remains to be seen. I make no predictions: my forecast of the possible finalist at the beginning of the week are totally wrong. Good thing I am not a betting man.

Mens Semi Finals
[4] Ramy Ashour (EGY) bt [1] Amr Shabana (EGY) 11-6, 7-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-7 (63 mins)
[7] Karim Darwish (EGY) bt [5] David Palmer (AUS) 11-6, 11-9, 11-8 (46mins)

[1] Nicol David (MAS) bt [14] Madeline Perry (IRE) 11-6, 11-8, 11-6 (35mins)
[11] Vicky Botwright (ENG) bt [5] Jenny Duncalf (ENG) 11-3 11-6 retired (22 mins)




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