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High Stakes after a Silent Spring…

May
18, 2003 by Dan Kneipp

Qatar
PSA Masters Preview — The Top Half    [draw/results]
by Team Kneipp (Kah-nipe)

The
war in Iraq caused the Qatar Masters to be delayed, originally scheduled

for a month ago. It will be a lovely change to be getting daily squash
updates
from
Doha rather than the war analysis and briefings from the huge US military
contingent
based in the same city.

The
Masters is an anomaly in regard to its entry requirements. Firstly there
is no qualification tournament, just thirty-two main draw players. Normally
a tournament has an entry closing date 3 to 6 weeks before the tournament
starts.

Doha’s Great Squash Venue,
photo © 2003 Chris Walker

The
Spanish Open is next month. If the entries closed this month I would be
guaranteed a place in the main draw with my current ranking of 12 (providing
there isn’t a wild card). But the entry closing date is next month so
whether I am a main draw player (ranked 12 or better) or a qualifier (13
onwards) will depend on my result in Qatar and the result of the players
ranked 8 to 15 as we all have ranking averages in the same vicinity. So
the precise date that a tournament closes the entries is very important.

The
way the Masters works is there is a spot for the top 32 players as per
the
rankings of the 1st of January. Having the tournament’s entry five months
before
the actual event means that there are a handful of players situated around
the
crucial ranking positions (4, 8, 16, 32) that are very fortunate, or are
cursing the system. Players that are no longer in the top 32 get thrown
a life line to help bring them back towards the top 20. Players that weren’t
in the top 32 five months ago but are now can only look on with anguish.

If
the entry date was this month rather than five months ago, it would benefit:

  • Karim
    Darwish who would be a top 8 seed.
  • Simon
    Parke who would be top 16
  • Omar
    Elborolossy who would be top 16

But
many players can be thankful that the entry isn’t today. Chris Walker
and Amr Shabana are both seeded for the tournament but wouldn’t be from
this month’s ranking. David Evans, Stefan Castelyn, Wael El Hindi and
Del Harris wouldn’t even be in the tournament.

Qatar has hosted some great squash battles,

Jahangir vs Jansher photo © 2003 Squashtalk archives

Evans
was 24 but is now 34. Castelyn was 27 and is now 33. El Hindi went from
29 to 38 and Harris made the biggest move from 30 to 53.

They
get entry into the tournament at the expense of four players who would
otherwise qualify. They are Mohammed Abbas, Rodney Durbach, Shahier Razik
and Adrian Grant.

Some
people that would excluded from this tournament because of the entry
system (ranked 33, 34 & 35) have been let off the hook through the
misfortune of
other players. David Palmer still hasn’t recovered from his Appendicitis
in March and can
only
watch on painfully as his best opportunity to win back the coveted #1
ranking goes by uncontested. Mark Chaloner has also not entered as his
wedding and
honeymoon was already planned and the newly scheduled tournament clashed
with the big event.

His
commitment to his partner and their ceremony over his work even in these
frugal tournament times bodes wonderfully for their relationship. And
Chris Walker has withdraw at the eleventh hour making way for a very happy
Dan Jenson.

Top
Half of the Draw

[1] Peter Nicol (Eng) versus Nick Matthew (Eng)

Nicol
is number one and has been for awhile now. Nick Matthew is currently ranked
24 and has a career high of 22 a couple of months ago. His biggest scalp
so far in the PSA tour is a 2001 victory over Shabana at the Hong Kong
Open.

Other
than that he hasn’t yet begun beating top 20 players despite nearly
reaching that ranking himself. We played for the first time in New York
in
February and I was impressed with his game, but whether he can challenge

Nicol is another question, although he won’t be daunted by the task.

Nicol
and Matthew haven’t played each other in PSA yet.

[12]
Amr Shabana (Egy) versus Graham Ryding (Can)

Amr Shabana will face Graham
Ryding
photo © 2003 D Tessier

Shabana
is currently ranked 23. It is the first time in over a year that he hasn’t
been in the top 20, with his best ranking of 13 coming only two months
ago. His January ranking was 14 so he enters the main draw as a seeded
player.

Shabana’s
resume is one of the best for a player that has yet to break the top ten
and includes victories over Chaloner, Heath, Palmer, Eyles, Walker, Gough,Johnson
and Boswell. He is the only player that has directly benefited from the
tournament being postponed (aside from the little problem of war, bombs
and death that has happily been avoided by each player).

When
the tournament was postponed each player was required to enter the tournament
again. Or for a first time in Shabana’s case — he simply forgot
to enter the only major tournament on the tour calendar over a six month
period. Words can’t describe what a mistake that would have been.

Ryding
spent all of 2001 in the top 20, but had a more disappointing 2002,
spending eleven months of the year outside the top 20, meaning that he
had
to
qualify for many of the big tournaments. He has returned to the upper
echelon of
the pro men’s game at #19 this month and will be immediately aiming for
the more significant goal of top 16. Ryding had his first ever loss to
fellow
Canadian Shahier Razik earlier in the year, but reversed the result on
the way to
cementing his position as the country’s #2 player last week at the nationals,
losing to Power in the final.

These
two have played each other once in PSA, in December at the World Open

in Antwerp. Shabana won the second round encounter in straight sets. Despite

this Ryding will probably be happy with his first round opponent and both
players will go on court expecting to win. Normally Shabana’s fitness,
or lack of it,
would be considered an element here but he recently won his way through
to
the
final of the $25 000 tournament in Pakistan including a fifth set semi
final upset over Mansoor Zaman after trailing by two games – not the tournament
or conditions that allow an unfit player to excel.

[6]
Anthony Ricketts (Aus) versus Stephen Meads (Eng)

Ricketts
is the 6th seed for this tournament and will be salivating at the prospect
of moving a few more ranking positions and taking a coveted top 4 seeding
that would ensure he doesn’t play the likes of Nicol or Power until the
semi finals. Until that happens it seems that Ricketts is destined to
spend most quarter finals on court with the Scottish Englishman.

Ricketts looks for a breakthrough photo
© 2003 Debra Tessier

Ricketts
has played seven tournaments over the past 12 months (a terrible indication
of the prosperity of the men’s tour). At the US Open, Qatar Classic, World
Open and Tournament of Champions he was knocked out of each event in the
quarter finals by Nicol. Add to that collection the quarter finals of
last year’s Pakistan Open in March, the 3rd round of the Commonwealth
Games and now the semi of the Super Series Final, and Ricketts will be
wondering what he has to do to get drawn outside of Nicol’s quarter, and
when his breakthrough victory over the #1 will come.

Stephen
Meads is currently ranked 31, the same position he was in January. The
thirty-three year old is one of the genuine veterans of the tour having
been a pro on the circuit for the past ten years.. Meads would probably
be the only player of the past four years that could rival Nicol and Power
for ranking consistency. Granted he hasn’t reached the top level of the
game but he still has spent the past 45 months ranked in the 30s (nearly
four years!). There are four tiny hiccups on this record of consistency
where he snuck into the high 20s, reaching 27 at the end of last year,
but otherwise his performance has been rock solid in its uniformity.

The
only encounter Ricketts and Meads have had was over three and a half years
ago. Ricketts at the time was ranked 45 to Meads’ 34, helping explain
the
Aussie’s straight set loss. Since then Ricketts has made a steady progress
to the top 20 then top 10 so it would be unwise to bet on a similar score
line for their rematch.

[16]
Simon Parke (Eng) versus Paul Price

Parke
had benefited greatly from the absence of Palmer and Chaloner. His ranking
was 18 in January and he should have missed out on a seeded position,
instead
becomes the last seed at 16. This makes a momentous difference. Given
the choice
between playing possibly Nicol or Power as a non-seed, or Price as a seed,
no
ne would choice the former. But it would be an injustice to Parke’s resurgence
if he didn’t have a seeded position. His current ranking is thirteen care
of his World Open quarter finals performance that saw consecutive upsets
over me and then Stewart Boswell.

Paul
Price is currently ranked 25 in the world. Over the past 12 months he
has only beaten one top 20 player in a major tournament, getting past
an injured Mark Chaloner in the first round of New York’s T.O.C in February.

These
two have played twice in PSA, the most recent being in 2000 which Parke
lost after winning their 1999 encounter.

[3]
John White (Sco) versus Renan Lavigne (Fra)

White
has regained a position in the top 4, the rankings finally showing him
the
reward he deserves for making the final of the World Open. He has now
been
in
the top ten for over two years with the majority of that time remaining
in
the
top 5. His best ranking to date is #3 and he has made no qualms of announcing
that he’s aiming for and capable of taking the top position. Anyone doubting

his credentials need only be reminded of the 15-9, 15-7, 15-10 whipping
he
dished out to Nicol in 31 minutes in the World Open semi finals. White
lost in
the second round of this tournament last year (to Beachill) so he will
be
looking to go much further this year. Depending on what stage of the tournament
White reaches, if he progresses one round further than Jonathon Power
he could
replace him at the #3 position in June’s rankings.

Renan Lavigne will make White run
photo © 2003 Debra Tessier

Renan
Lavigne moves into the top 20 this month for only the second time in his
career. This will probably be bittersweet for the French battler as it
also coincides with him being relegated to the third ranked Frenchman
with Gregory Gaultier moving to #18. France’s depth and strength in squash
can only be good for the game, and along with the Netherlands and Finland
emphasise that our wonderful sport is slowly broadening its elite base
beyond just the Commonwealth countries.

Lavigne
is one of the real runners on the tour. He is very fit, has a lean small
frame that is ideal for continually moving, and he can be very patient.
His two hour victory over Simon Parke at the European Championships being
a good example of this. At the end of the match Parke was said to look
like a punch drunk boxer from the amount of work Lavigne made him do.

These
two haven’t played against each other in a PSA event.

[14]
Mansoor Zaman (Pak) versus Adrian Grant (Eng)

Mansoor
is the first Pakistani player in a long time to make it to the top 20,
and he’s now knocking on the door of the top 10, sitting one spot away.
I imagine it must be hard to be a Pakistani player in today’s conditions.

The
nation has been so spoilt with the hall-of-fame exploits of their past
champions,
particularly the Khans, that anything short of a local player becoming
#1 and World Champion must seem like a failure. But their junior team
recently won the World Junior Team championships in India indicating better
times ahead.

A
low standard of living is a driving force behind many players from a poor
background using sporting success as a vehicle to a better life. This
is particularly obvious for sports like soccer where no facilities are
required for a kid to excel. Unfortunately the infrastructure required
for squash means this isn’t very common in our game. A large number of
today’s top pros have gotten to that position because at some stage of
their childhood their parents ran a squash centre — not very comparable
to a poor kid growing up in a slum in central Africa using soccer to better
his life. But when you visit Pakistan you get a real sense that the sport
can make an overwhelming difference in their lives, and the squash authorities
seem astute enough to realise that if they don’t expose a large base of
children to the sport they won’t find the rare talents that can excel.

Another
important element to this success is the frequent tournaments that the
Pakistan Squash Federation hosts that are almost exclusively attended
by the
Pakistani and Egyptian players. This is how Mansoor has been able to get
his
ranking to #11 despite only having two career victories over top 20 players.

Darwish
has also taken advantage of these tournaments, now having a ranking of
8 despite only having two major tournaments over the past year that he
progressed
past the first round, and not making the quarter finals in either.

Lee Beachill on the rebound
photo © 2003 Fritz Borchert

It
won’t surprise me if you begin to see more top players making the trip
to
Pakistan toparticipate in the regular medium sized tournaments that have
allowed
Mansoorand Darwish to get to the position they are in with very little
success on the
bigger stage.

Adrian
Grant is one of the extremely fortunate that wouldn’t have been able to
participate in Qatar without the withdrawal of Palmer and Chaloner. Even
if he
loses his first round match the invaluable ranking points will jettison
him ahead of the trailing pack of players ranked from 33 to 50 that includes
the likes of Dan Jenson, John Williams, Tommy Berden, Shahier Razik, Lars
Harms and James Willstrop. The value of these points can’t be understated.
If Grant loses he still walks away with 156 points, which is only 20 less
than what the winner of this week’s stacked Mega Italia Open received.
The winner!

Grant
is now ranked in the high 20s for the first time in career. Over the last
year he has caused upsets over Alex Gough and Paul Price at Hong Kong
and Dayton respectively. Grant has drawn arguably the most inexperienced
and unfit
player currently in the top 16 with his opponent Mansoor (I’m not saying
he’s
inexperienced or unfit, just relative to the other fifteen seeds). If
given the choice of which player he would like to try to upset, Grant
would probably choose Mansoor, but if he underestimates the Pakistani
player, particularly his shot making abilities, his trip to the Middle
East will be short.

This
will be the first time that Mansoor and Grant play each other.

[8]
Lee Beachill (Eng) versus Rodney Durbach (Rsa)

Beachill
has spent the last year with his ranking bouncing around between eight,
nine and ten. He has had a long running ankle injury that has ended his
matches in the past three tournaments he has played – the World Open,
the Dayton Open and the Tournament of Champions. It must be getting better
as he was able to help guide England to victory recently at the European
Team Championships.

Rodney Durbach is alway a big threat
photo © 2003 Debra Tessier

His
opponent in Doha will be the #1 South African player Rodney Durbach. He
was
ranked 34 at the beginning of the year and along with Adrian Grant should
take
the time to write a little thank you note to both Palmer and Chaloner.
Or perhaps a get well card for Palmer and congratulatory note to Chip.
Durbach’s ranking has fluttered around the 20s and 30s over the past couple
of years and he’ll be looking for that one big result or consistent steady
performances
to
make the important step to top 24 then top 16. Looking at his recent tournament
successes he has already made huge inroads towards the consistent steady
performances.

To
say Durbach is capable of causing an upset is an understatement. The stocky
South African has a consumate game that on a good day can cause grief
to any of the top pros. Take his last six tournaments for example. Of
these on three occasions he upset a seeded player. At November’s YMG Classic
in Toronto he qualified then beat Scotland’s Martin Heath in straight
games. At the Catella Swedish Open in February he got past defending champion
Ong Beng Hee in a marathon five setter. Then in the last major in New
York he didn’t drop a game as he swept aside Alex Gough.

It
is strange how the luck of tournament draws work. Obviously everyone has
players that they prefer to play and ones they want to avoid. It’s exactly
the same as at club level — you keep losing to John but can beat
Bob easily. John has no trouble beating you but struggles with Bob. How
often you come across different player depends on the luck of the draw
and how far you progress in the tournament.

Durbach
and I have both been PSA members since 1994 and during that time
played a lot of different players. Prior to November last year I had never
stepped on
court with Lee Beachill. Not in a league match, not in an exhibition,
not in a PSA event. During that same time Durbach has had to play Beachill
six times, and it seems like he is someone that the South African doesn’t
like playing.

Of
their six encounters Beachill has won five including their most recent
one earlier this year at Dayton. The only time he didn’t win was in Italy
but that was over three years ago.

Beachill
will be thinking of this track record and will be probably hoping to have
a quick victory over his South African opponent with lots of winners.

That
prospect already diminished when the draw was released stating the court
allocations. Of the eight matches being played on the first day six will
be on the permanent glass show court and two will?? be on the normal court
which is
considerably bouncier and harder to hit winners on. Past form would obviously
back Beachill for this match, but you can never discount Durbach.

[15]
Alex Gough (Wal) versus Stefan Casteleyn (Bel)

This
is the other match that won’t be played on the show court. Both players
have been in the top ten earlier in their career, Gough most recently
in
February 2001 when he was #9, Castelyn in December of 1999 when a World
Open semi final appearance got him to #7. The Welshman is now ranked 17
and has spent the last year bouncing around the teens. The Belgian has
spent every month of
the past three years moving in the 20s and 30s. I think he is the fastest
player on the circuit. He makes some retrievals that are breathtaking
to watch.

Stefan Casteleyn has a deceiving game
© 2003 Debra Tessier

There
is a lot more pleasure in watching these retrievals from outside the court
and
not as his opponent. Castelyn made it clear that his immediate future
would hinge on his performance at last year’s World Open hosted in his
country.

He
didn’t achieve as he hoped and since then has had many lacklustre results
including very surprising league losses, tournament upsets and the relinquishing
of his national title. His main result last year was at the Qatar Classic
in November where he had to qualify first then met me in the main draw.
I won the first game comfortably with Castelyn beginning to look very
tired as I was making him do lots of work. Then everything changed. Winners
started flowing from his racquet from every part of the court. He couldn’t
do anything wrong and I couldn’t stop the flood and went down in four.
Analysing the game afterward to see what I could have done better we worked
out that I didn’t play badly and was simply beaten. Stefan even told us
that it was the best match he has played for a very long time.

Dutch
champion Tommy Berden has seen Castelyn play many times and was at the
match. He said that every time he has seen Castelyn play he has wondered
how he made the semi final of the World Open as he didn’t think his game
was quite good enough for that. After watching the match in Qatar he said
he understood and just hadn’t seen the Belgian play that well before.
It’s cold comfort for me as the loser but helps emphasise that Castelyn
is very capable of brilliant games and when motivated can upset many of
the game’s elite.

The
last time Castelyn and Gough played was early 2001 with the Welshman
winning in 4.

These
are the eight matches that make up to top half of the draw and the
first day’s play. The preview of the bottom half of the draw will be ready
soon.

Kneipp’s
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