Amr Shabana, clearly comfortable on a court and stage in the friendly venue of Doha Qatar, played at-times brilliant squash, but faltered at some critical moments, just barely surrendering to David Palmer in a dramatic match at the World Open Quarterfinals this afternoon.
Shabana admitted, "The head is still my weakness."
Meanwhile, In an extraordinary changing of the elite guard of men’s squash, England’s Lee Beachill moved into his first World Open semi-final in Doha today with a comprehensive win over his Pontefract training partner, James Willstrop, while former World and Commonwealth Champion Peter Nicol, having disposed of his oldest rival, former World and Commonwealth Champion Jonathon Power, in the second round, fell to the Canadian’s lower ranked training partner, Graham Ryding, in a four game quarter-final.
Beachill will now face the 2002 champion, David Palmer of Australia, who yesterday fought back from two games down to defeat the defending champion, Amr Shabana of Egypt, in a fifth game tiebreak, while Ryding, who has never before advanced beyond the last 16 of a World Open Championship, will play the second seeded Thierry Lincou of France.
Ryding, unseeded and accustomed to playing in the shadow of Power, with whom he has led Canadian squash since their schooldays in Toronto, was coached by his higher ranking friend against the man who 24 hours earlier took a 22nd win over Power in their lifelong list of 40 battles as an indication that he was in with a chance of again winning the World Open title he won in Egypt in 1999.
“On the day I was not quite as sharp against Graham as I was against Jonathon, and on this unforgiving Doha glass showcourt that can be very costly,” Nicol admitted. “I always find Graham a difficult opponent and today he was at the top of his game. I started just below par and, although I managed to stem the tide in the third game, he played at consistently high pitch through the 47 minutes to win 11-5 11-7 9-11 11-3.”
Ryding went on with a game plan to keep the ball running past Nicol and to keep turning him off the center of the court from which the third seed’s rhythmic game is normally driven. With Power supplying between games advice from the greatest store of knowledge about Nicol’s tactics and style, he lost control of the court for only sort periods in the third game.
“This is a fantastic day for me. I have played my whole career for a moment like this. To beat the man who is a legend in the game for my generation of players, with the other legend, Jonathon, in my corner just unbelievable. I have played Peter maybe half-a-dozen times in PSA events. We have had good matches but I was never really close to winning before.
“This time my game was on, I had the game plan to beat him on this court, which suits my style and approach, and I had the best man in the world in my corner fopr a match against Peter Nicol. I never lost focus, didn’t get tired, and I feel like two men right now.”
Nicol could only quip wryly : “If one Canadian doesn’t get you, the next one will. At least it took the whole of Canada to stop me here.” He was still buoyant, though, about his return to effective performance in this tournament after injury put him off court before the British Open in October.
Shabana Takes A Dive In The Third
Amr Shabana of Egypt, the defending champion, today lost his 81 minute quarter-final 6-11 7-11 11-2 11-8 11-10 (2-0) to David Palmer of Australia, the preceding title-holder, after cockily giving away the third game and then stopping for a three minute injury break when 9-10 down in the fifth game.
“I should have gone for the straight games win,” he admitted after the match. “I have improved many parts of my game but the head is still my weakness.”
Palmer, the raw-boned Antwerp based Australian No1 whom Shabana described as a giant when losing a similarly tight encounter to him in the British Open Final in October, agreed that it had been a tactical blunder on the Egyptian’s part to let the six minute third game slide easily away in just three hands after falling behind in the early exchanges.
“He let me back in and in the end I did for him,” Palmer said almost in relief after returning to the court after the fifth game injury break and slotting a stunning forehand three wall nick shot to steal the tiebreak.
“I started slowly today, perhaps because I had a fairly undemanding second round match with Adrian Grant. It was only going back on court two games down that I developed a real sense of urgency and started to get my game together properly.”
Palmer went to a 5-3 lead in the fourth game before Shabana once again entered the fray. It was an extraordinarily balanced affair from that point on, however. Palmer is a man who naturally fills much of the space his opponent might require either pursuing the ball or retreating from it. Shabana is a fleet footed magician who can conjure a nick shot out of the air or float a tantalizing hovering lob from the most extended position. With a referee, Ray Gingell of Wales, prepared to acknowledge the limits and capabilities of each player finely to keep the play flowing with a minimum of penalty strokes and no-let calls, Shabana fought back to a 6-5 lead in that game before losing 11-8 in 16 minutes, then led 4-3 and 9-7in the fifth before a stretched pick-up in the top right hand corner was called down by Gingell and then a harsh no-let call delivered as he fought to reach a drop shot in the top right hand corner.
As Palmer took matchball with a high backhand volley drop at the conclusion of a desperate chasing rally in which Shabana hit the floor full length twice, the Egyptian held his ankle in pain and requested a three minute break for self-inflicted injury.
“I have never experienced a three minute injury break on matchball before,” said Palmer after the final. For the Egyptian support group it was a chance to pour advice into Shabana’s ear while his corner-man sprayed his ankle. It worked to good enough effect to bring the defending champion back to play a rally of some brilliance at the end of which he played a cut-off forehand volley pass into space deep in the left hand court. But he hit the top of the tin with a forehand pickup at the end of the next rally and lost histilte when Palmer concluded matters with his three wall nick shot.
“It is almost a relief not to be world champion any more,” Shabana admitted. “Everywhere I went in the past year I was expected to win because I was world champion. Now I want to concentrate on becoming World No1. All the experts have been making lists of the top ten players and they never put me in. I want to show then how wrong they are.”
Palmer has no such qualms about being world champion. He defeated top seeded John White for the title in the 2002 final in Antwerp. And now he faces the top seeded Lee Beachill in a semi-final in Qatar that is a re-run of a British Open semi-final that rested upon two questionable refereeing decision at the end of 101 minutes.
Cruises To First World Open Semi-final
“He will be looking for his revenge here, I guess, and he has expended far less energy than me getting there,” acknowledged Palmer.
Certainly the World No1 looks in good enough form to test the former World Champion. “When I am playing as well as I am this week I can deal with James because I know all the tricks and feints with which he can often bamboozle other players,” he explained. “We have had much closer battles than that recently but, even with him playing well enough to reach the quarter-finals here, I was pleased to be able to get off in three games against him.”
As David Palmer became embroiled in the 81 minute saga with Shabana Beachill’s hopes for a first World Open title to match the World No1 ranking he earned for the first time a couple of months back must have soared. When they met in Nottingham in the British Open the Yorkshireman had played hard four game matches against both Joe Kneipp and James Willstrop, the men he has dismissed almost imperiously here.
In the Qatar Classic on the same court last year Beachill himself defeated Nicol at the quarter-final stage, then went on to take the title beating Nick Matthew and John White in the succeeding matches. “This is a court where the unexpected is given a running chance,” he said. “So I am not counting any chickens just yet.”
Nor should he. Thierry Lincou, the second seeded Frenchman, works this court as well as any in the field. He was tested today by a determined assault from Anthony Ricketts, the combative Australian on his way back from a long injury layoff, but the accuracy and speedy persistence with which the World No2 has won much of the new 11 point tour since the start of the new season came to his aid again.
“I started well but tired a bit in the middle of the match as Anthony began to compete harder and control things a bit. But at the start of the fifth I found my accuracy again and was able to re-assert myself,” he said.
Ryding thinks he has good chances against Lincou on this court. He was close to him. He says, in the Canadian Classic and on this court, if he can again raise the standard that today saw off the living legend that is Peter Nicol, a World Open Final might be his reward.
World Open Squash Championship
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