Ramy Ashour wins Sharif Khan Cup in Boston Extravaganza
Sept 16, 2010, by Ron Beck © 2010 SquashTalk.com , Independent News; SquashTalk LLC (Photos Ron Beck and Deb Tessier)
800-PLUS FANS CROWD BOSTON SYMPHONY HALL FOR ONE-NIGHT SQUASH FEST
Lets get the "buts" out of the way first. Yes, this was only an exhibition. Not a ranking event.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, this was a specatularly successful, energized and creative celebration of squash.
John Nimick, promoter of the Tournament of Champions, created a one-night unique format tournament that both brought out the best of four of the world's best squash players and brought out one of the largest squash audiences that might be assembled in Boston.
The format was almost perfectly designed to fit an audience's attention span for the evening and let them leave inspired and feeling they had had their money's worth. The players got their money's worth too - the purse was $30,000.
The night consisted of two semi finals, of two games each, a third place match of one game only, and a championship match of best of three. The rules for the semi final matches stated that if the semi final reached one game apiece (and both did!) that the winner of game one would select a tiebreaker of either one or three points (in both cases, the sudden-death one point tiebreaker was selected).
In an interesting experiment, players were given two "life-lines" during the contest -- in which the player could request that the audience vote (accomplished by texting) on an appeal of any referee's decision.
This short format enticed retired, former world number one, the Canadian maverick Jonathon Power, out of retirement for the event, to face off against three other players, all of whom have also called world number one their own; current number one Ramy Ashour and also Amr Shabana and Gregory Gaultier.
Among the interactivity gimmicks introduced for the evening, was a texting event, in which the fans in attendance were asked to text in their "favorite player" for the evening. Jonathon Power, interestingly won that popularity contest hands-down, gaining 42% of the text in votes.
RAMY ASHOUR, MEET JONATHON POWER
And so the highlight of the night was the irresistable semi-final bout between Power and Ashour. Power, at 36, and Ashour, at 22, had never played. Hisham Ashor, Ramy's older brother, who was on hand as a spectator for the evening, assured me in advance that this matchup would be, " a serious match ... not an exhibition ... "
And the contest between Jonathon Power and Ramy Ashour, both known as highly creative and attacking players, lived up to its billing. The match was fast-paced, dizzyingly fast, breathtaking and high quality. I can't say that it was quite up to the tactical seriousness of a major ranking tournament late-round match. But both players wanted to win and they were at no moment fooling around or in exhibition mode.
From the first point, it was clear, as a long-time observer of Jonathon, that he was starting a bit nervous, but that he was in competition mode. Jonthon said later that "by the middle of the first game I was feeling into it ... there's nowhere else that you can get that speed" ( by which he meant in serious competition with the world's best).
Power was giving the familiar and very characteristic court mannerisms (like his famous hand through the hair after a point has ended a millimeter wrong for him), showing his interest in the contest.
Ashour and Power went back and forth. Though they'd never played, Power was on Ashour's unpredictable attacking game from the start, one of the few players I've see who was rarely or never fooled by Ramy. They played back and forth trading points, till Power took the first game 11-10, in a whisker.
As he often does, Ashour lifted him game into a frenzy of focus after losing the first, and Power, breathing hard by several points into the second fell behind quickly. For Power -- whose always thinking to win -- it became clear that he would sacrafice game to, to get to the tiebreaker.
Which was where they ended up --- one game apiece and Power selected a sudden death tiebreaker (Power almost always selected sudden death in competition - this wasn't an age against youth strategy). They played on, neither player getting a lucky nick, and the final point ended in a let. Then in the replay, a furiously long, various and seriously played point ended with Power achieving the clear passing winning shot --- only to have Ashour talk his way into a let and one more restart to this final point (brother Hisham assured me that Power had played a down ball. I guess the promoters really wanted Power there, but weren't expecting him in the final, or maybe that's not fair to the referee, but it certainly seemed like a point for Power... in any event, another intense and varied final sudden death replay ended in a tin by Power.
Any way you cut it, former world #1 Jonathon Power put on an extemely impressive and inspiring performance - coming within a whisker of knocking out the current world #1. And Jonathon was still talking it up some minutes later, "Did you see those 4 or 5 shots I hit one millimeter below the top of the tin? .... all of those up and it was my match ... " For his part, Ramy Ashour was gracious in his interview with Ming Tsai, "How old is he? 36? You saw him out there.... there's no way ... I hope I can just be on court when I get to that age ... "
The other semi-final was also entertaining, matching up Gregory Gaultier against Amr Shabana. This game was just imperceptibly less intense, and consequently in an exhibition mode. Shabana is moving on to play in the US Open later this week (the only one amongst Ashour, Gaultier and himself with that itinerary), and coming off some injury. But he seemed to be playing effortlessly and fluidly. He lost to Gaultier, also, in a one point sudden-death tiebreaker.
In the third place playoff, Power had just played himself into match form, and looked totally at ease and comfortable, handling Shabana in the one game 3'rd playoff.
In the finals, Ramy Ashour and Gregory Gaultier played a quite focused and fairly serious 3 game match; which Ashour won going away in the third game. The difference between first and second place money wasn't revealed.
Beyond the players themselves, the event brought out a who's-who of New Enland squash. The list includes 86-year old Henri Salaun, whose squash feats landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1956, Sharif Khan, the incomparable 12-time North American Champion and ruler of the courts in America and Canada for well over a decade, Mike Way, the newly inaugurated coach at Harvard College, Lenny Bernheimer, a top ranked American player for a decade, an impressive assembly of college and prep school coaches ... and about 900 of their closest friends and fellow squash enthusiasts.
Nimick's choice of host, celebrity chef and accomplished squash player, Ming Tsai, was also a great stroke. Tsai kept everyone engaged, relaxed and attentive, as well as fed.
SHOWDOWN@ SYMPHONY; SHARIF KHAN CUP, BOSTON, MA
Ramy Ashour (EGY) def Gregory Gaultier (FRA) 10-11 11-7 11-9 (31m)
Jonathon Power (CAN) def Amr Shabana (EGY) 11-4
Ramy Ashour (EGY) def Jonathon Power (CAN) 10-11 11-4 1-0 (21m)
Gregory Gaultier (FRA) def Amr Shabana (EGY) 11-10 9-11 1-0 (33m)