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Egyptians
at 10,000:1 – Darwish over Nicol
Shabana tops Ong

June
29, 2003: by Dan Kneipp         

Spanish
Open Semi Finals – Egyptian Onslaught.

The
Spanish Open is being held in a small plaza in the heart of Seville.

It
is a beautiful city with spectacular buildings, lovely small cobbled streets
lined with balconies, and a ludicrous number of stunning women who painfully
don’t speak a word of English. The court is outside and has free
public seating on the sides. The third largest cathedral in the world
is about a hundred metres behind the court and has a clock tower that
chimes regularly. On the right hand wall, right behind the small stand
is a narrow cobblestone one-way road. If a tournament is played on a show
court in a special enclosed area, like the Boston Symphony Hall for example,
the players expect no noise and no movement from the spectators, and usually
get it. If the court is in a noisy, busy area the players acknowledge
that there will be a lot of distractions and just get on with the job.

I
have never heard so much noise and distraction around a court as here
in Seville. Throughout the match there were a fairly constant stream of
cars, scooters and motorbikes filing past the court. Often a car would
stop to see what the hell this weird game in a box was, which would prompt
the driver behind to honk their horn impatiently.

Throughout
this match Nicol and Darwish played on through countless cars and their
horns, continual bell chiming, a Harley Davidson that surely broke some
local noise restriction laws, people walking around the court with cameras,
an inexperienced crowd that continually left their seats during the match
and numerous mobile phones going off. The only noise that bothered Darwish
enough that he didn’t serve until it was out of earshot was a horse
and buggy. There’s lot of them throughout the town, catering to
the many tourists, and the sound of the horse’s hooves on the stones
was the only thing that annoyed him.

I
didn’t intend writing any match-based stories during this tournament,
instead hoping to use the time to see some of Seville’s sights.
I knew the semi final match was going to be great viewing and I thought
it would be a travesty if tonight’s events didn’t get reported.

Peter
Nicol versus Karim Darwish
Darwish
had his first major victory over a player ranked in the top 5 at last
month’s Qatar Masters, defeating the then #2 Jonathon Power in a
dramatic final point shoot out in the fifth set. I saw this as the first
time that Darwish really showed that his current ranking of #8 was deserved
as he has been able to play lots of medium sized tournaments in Egypt
and Pakistan that aren’t attended by the top players, which has
given him a seemingly disproportianately strong ranking. If he didn’t
convincingly prove that wrong in Qatar, he has rammed the point home tonight.
His match against Willstrop in the quarter finals was very entertaining,
but both players were playing very open squash with a lot of boasts, drops,
counterdrops and nick attempts, but not many good length shots to the
back of the court. If you play an open game against Nicol you usually
get punished, so I was interested to see how the young Egyptian handled
the more formidable opponent.

The first game
started normally for Nicol. So often he’ll be playing against someone
who is matching him in virtually every area – pace, shot range,
movement – and quite often his opponent will be attacking much more
and dictating a lot of the pressure, but Nicol will still come away with
the point. It often seems like the other player is playing better squash,
but unlike Nicol they end up making a mistake to end the rally.

Darwish
started out a bit nervously, making four errors. He showed from the onset
that he was willing to use a mixture of solid length and attacking squash.
He has lovely racquet skills and is particularly good at putting the ball
in the nick and using a disguised tickle boast. At 4-7 down in the first
game he did such a good backhand tickle boast that it caught Nicol so
off guard that he slipped over trying to change direction. And this is
a court with a good floor. Nicol led 9-5, but some fancy shooting from
Darwish, including a cross court nick off the serve, a backhand straight
nick, a forehand held drive that Nicol didn’t see at all, a forehand
flick crosscourt, and a backhand cross court drop shot that rolled out
of the nick got the score to 11-11. At this point Nicol started attacking
more.

Darwish
made it clear that he was willing to be patient if he had to and wasn’t
going to just play erratic and low percentage squash. Nicol won the next
point to go 12-11 ahead. The next rally was a ridiculously hard, gut-wrenching,
energy-sapping, lactic acid feast of lunging, scrambling and rallying
that must have gone on for about two minutes. It ended in an atrocious
refereeing decision that set the tone for most of the night – Darwish
was playing two opponents tonight, the world #1, and a referee that had
a bad night with decisions, almost exclusively against the Egyptian. He
was given a no let on a backhand drive from Nicol that bounced just before
the service box, wasn’t particularly fast and bounced high. There
was definite interference and my mum would have been able to get to the
ball before the second bounce.

Darwish
is one of the gaggle of players that use a lot of gamesmanship to get
more strokes and lets, and I can only think that the referee was aware
of this and being particularly harsh on him because of that. Let/stoke
karma perhaps?

Whatever the
reason it made an already daunting task for Darwish all the more difficult,
but he was up for the challenge. He clawed his way back to 13-13. Both
players had done a lot of work by now. This is normally the time when
Nicol doesn’t play any rash shots, instead waiting for his opponent
to. But if you’re bloody tired it’s much easier to go for
an unexpected, low percentage winner. Nicol went for a cross court nick
off the serve, which he missed by a long way, instead hitting it high
on the side wall. Darwish was onto it quickly and hit a good drop shot.
Nicol got to it, but smashed his cross court into the top of the tin giving
Darwish game ball. A mishit shot from Darwish that came off the end of
his raquet and went for a clean winner ended the first game in the Egyptian´s
favour.

GAME
TWO

The squash wasn’t as good in the second game because both players
who obviously drained from the tough first set. A lot of the points were
decided by held shots and flicks that were only possible by the other
player being over zealous in trying to read the next shot in an effort
to conserve movement and energy. They traded points until 7-7, but then
Nicol pulled away easily with Darwish willing to simply watch some balls
bounce a second time, whereas he would have hounded them down in the first
game. 15-8 to Nicol.

GAME
THREE

The third game followed the same pattern as the second, with Darwish not
putting in quite the physical effort that he had in the first. Both players
still did a lot of work, but it looked like Nicol was going to grind his
opponent into the ground as he has done so often throughout his career.
At 11-8 to Nicol, Darwish got another bad reffing decision against him.
It appeared that he hit Nicol with his racquet as he attempted a forehand
drive. He still hit the ball, but it sprayed into the side wall first
and came straight back to himself. Nicol was waiting behind him with his
racquet ready and the expected stroke. The referee awarded the stroke,
which led to a unique situation that I haven’t seen before where
both players appropriately thought it was their point.

The
complaining and arguing from Darwish once he realised he lost the point
didn’t alter the referee’s decision to award the point to
Nicol. If Darwish did contact him with his racquet, and it looked like
he did to me, it should have been his point. But he had taken a dodgy
pickup that looked like a double bounce a couple of points earlier, and
these things often even out over the long run. The final point of the
third game saw Darwish scrambling for a good length that he was only able
to boast. Nicol put in a drop and Darwish was too tired to bother running
for it. 15-9 to Nicol.

DRAMA
IN GAME FOUR

Darwish started well in the fourth game, taking a 5-1 lead. Nicol seemed
to have paid a price for winning the second and third game, finally showing
more signs of fatigue as unforced errors began creeping into his game.
He stopped the flow of errors and got the score back to 8-8. By this time
Darwish had begun to attack more and wasn’t giving up on any balls.
A stroke to the Brit (it’s easier than writing English-Scotsman)
and a couple of errors by Darwish saw Nicol take a 11-8 lead. Nicol won
the next tough, long rally with a well weighted backhand drive. He showed
how much winning the match meant to him by screaming out "C’mon"
after taking the point. I had to look around to make sure Lleyton Hewitt
hadn’t snuck on court. With Nicol leading two games to one and leading
12-8 in the fourth game, any experienced squash follower would say the
outcome was fairly certain.

Darwish hit
a fairly good boast that Nicol got to, but his drop shop clipped the tin.
12-9. The next point used all four corners of the court. Darwish hit a
forehand drop that Nicol lobbed. Darwish had a chance to volley the lob,
but it was very high and decided to let it hit the back wall. The lob
was weighted too well and Darwish’s attempt to back wall boast failed.
13-9 to Nicol. Darwish by now was doing everything to prevent the game
from slipping away. He was chasing everything down and varying his shots
and keeping the pressure on. It worked as he forced two errors from Nicol
in the next couple of points – a boast that was down and a lob that
was out. Two killer drop shots in a row from the Egyptian that Nicol was
only just able to get a racquet to set up a simple cross court length
winner and brought the score to 13-13. Darwish served to Nicol’s
forehand (remembering he’s left handed and Darwish is right handed)
who hit a fairly decent cross court. Darwish took a huge lunge and volleyed
a straight drop that was ungettable and set up game ball. His low percentage
winner turned into an error when he tried to finish the next point off
with a drop shot that didn’t work. 14-14.

FOLLOWING
IN POWER’S SHOES

If Darwish decides to call set one it gives Nicol a match point –
something you don’t want to do. But perhaps Darwish was thinking
of his recent success against Power at 14-14, and called set one. The
tension in the air was spectacular – match ball to Nicol, game ball
to Darwish. The game should have been decided by a fairly straight forward
stroke to Darwish after Nicol hit a forehand soft lob over his own head
with Darwish standing right behind him with his racquet ready. When the
ref said ‘yes let’ the crowd appropriately erupted in boos
and jeers. The replayed point should have been won by Nicol who hit shots
that deserved to be winners, but Darwish put his body on the line, lunged
harder, ran more and scrambled until he hit a drive that was too tight
for Nicol, unable to get the ball to the front wall. The crowd erupted
in applause and Darwish clenched his fist at the referee who nearly robbed
him of a chance to fight out the final game.

DARWISH
IN THE FIFTH

Darwish started strongly in the fifth. He was taking advantage of a tiring
Nicol, and winning lots of points on tickle boasts that left Nicol looking
for the drive or the drop. The Egyptian was going for nicks, especially
off the serve, and getting lots of them. He led 9-4, but some good work
from Nicol and more bad reffing decision brought the score to 11-11. Nicol
tried to volley a backhand drive from Darwish that hugged the wall. It
was too tight and the ball didn’t make the front wall. 12-11 to
Darwish. At this crucial junction of the match Darwish decided to hit
a backhand cross court that couldn’t have been more than a millimetre
above the tin. The kind of shot that you normally call a ‘hack shot’
because it is such a hit or miss shot. It worked for Darwish and he went
ahead 13-11. He continued going for low percentage shots, choosing to
attempt a dropshot from the back forehand corner. It didn’t work.
13-12. Darwish wasn’t perturbed at his missed shot, and played an
overhead straight drop to finish the next rally off with a nick that brought
up two match balls. Nicol decided to start attacking more at this point
and hit a backhand drop shot winner to see off the first match ball against
him. The next point was strange. Darwish hit a backhand drive from the
T position. It’s second bounce would have landed near the back of
the service box. Darwish was in Nicol’s direct line to the ball.
It would have been a fairly simple let situation. Nicol attempted to play
the ball, clipped shoulders with Darwish, but then continued to try to
reach the ball. He realised once he moved past Darwish that the interference
was too great and that he should have requested the let, which he did
then. But he had already moved past the interference and moved towards
hitting the ball, which he obvioulsy wasn’t going to get to now.
The referee correctly gave him no let, and Darwish completed the upset
and we witnessed a brilliant hour and forty minutes of squash.

Ong
Beng Hee versus Amr Shabana

By this time
it was 10:45 and I couldn’t resist some tapas at a nearby Spanish
restaurant and only returned to the court when Shabana was leading two
games to one and 14-11 in the fourth against Ong Beng Hee. He closed out
the game and set up an all Egyptian final. Shabana is a wonderful shot
maker and even from the final few points I saw of the match he has obviously
increased his fitness dramatically. I asked him after the match what has
changed. ‘I started training" he said. "It’s been
a while since I trained hard, like a couple of years. I started training
again and I’ve got the result I wanted."

Obviously being
fitter allows him to play a different game rather than just going for
winners as he often does. He said "My game plan against Beng Hee
was to play tight and play to the corners, he puts the ball away well
so I tried to keep the ball away from the middle".

Joe and Simon
Parke were trying to work out afterwards what the betting odds would have
been before the tournament of Darwish and Shabana being the last men standing.
About 10 000 to 1. It’s obviously no coincidence that the weather
here is similar to Egypt and the outside court creates hot and humid playing
conditions, something Shabana acknowledged helps him. On the bus back
to the hotel he was already getting motivated about his upcoming final
match against Darwish. Whatever happens Egyptian squash is getting stronger
and stronger and we can only hope this leads to the Al Ahram tournament
being held at the pyramids again soon.

 

Kneipp’s
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