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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Ali Farag wins Montreal Open

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After 97 minutes, Ali Farag hugs runner-up Karim Abdel Gawad
After 97 minutes, Ali Farag hugs runner-up Karim Abdel Gawad

Farag outlasts top seed Gawad in a five-game marathon
By RUNA RETA in Montreal

 

Ali Farag wore down top seed Karim Abdel Gawad to win a riveting all-Egyptian final of the PSA M35 Montreal Open 3-11, 18-16, 9-11, 11-6, 11-7 in 97 minutes of high-quality squash, brotherly respect and occasional mayhem.

Starting off with a nice, fluid rhythm, both players were moving around each other with ease, and playing through any small interference. Gawad came out of the gates stronger, showing off his incredible dexterity and rushing out to an early lead.

Farag was not quite finding his length and any opening or loose ball was being severely put away by the “baby-faced assassin”. With each rolling nick and crowd-gasping winner, Gawad’s confidence grew along with the scoreline. Catching Farag on boasts, volley drops, cross-court nicks (basically any attacking shot you can think of), the #7 in the world Gawad had a dream start to the match, taking the first 11-3.

We all assumed that the feisty Farag would come out storming in the second, and even though he started hitting his marks much better, it was still Gawad who was red-hot with the racket. Every time a tiny opening was given, “The Assassin” schooled the Harvard graduate with lethal attacks to the front. By the time Gawad eased to 6-2 and then 9-4, Farag was red in the face with frustration. A series of anguished yells seemed to galvanize the younger Egyptian however, and slowly he started to find his way into the game, clawing his way back to 7-9.

And then, refereeing mayhem ensued. It started with a few points, where both players had to politely explain the rules to the three referees. Then Gawad was given a no let on a simple let call (makes a joke and keeps it classy).

Then Farag gets awarded a let off of Gawad’s winning drop into the nick (starting to get mildly irritated). THEN a questionable stroke against Gawad that brings Farag to 10-9, and Gawad is now as unsettled as you will ever see him (still, very mild). From this point forward, both players unfortunately started to call lets on any given opportunity and it became a Russian roulette of what calls they would receive.

At one point, when Gawad finally got a call that went his way, the central ref (perhaps out of subconscious guilt) called “game Gawad”… it was in fact 10-all. Going neck and neck from 10-all right through to 16-all, Farag took the second game with a beautiful forehand volley drop, and then turned to the crowd with clenched teeth (which I assumed to mean “game on!” and not “look at my teeth!”)

The third game featured some odd dynamics between the two Egyptian friends and room-mates. At times it was incredibly amicable, both looking like brothers playing a Sunday afternoon friendly (at one point Farag was actually massaging Gawad’s calf after they ran into each other), and at other moments, they complained vehemently about each other when calls didn’t go their way… ah, what mind games!

Anyway, aside from all the antics, Farag – who is the most feared and in-form player on tour at the moment – returned with a very focused strategy: hit everything high and straight. And boy did this start to work. All of a sudden, Gawad was being drawn into long rallies with few opportunities to shoot, and when he did attack, it was from up high and after 10-15 shots rather than off the 4th or 5th shot.

Errors, frustration and a bit of fatigue started to creep into Gawad’s seemingly impenetrable game, and Farag’s dogged determination helped keep the score close at 8-all. But again, some dicey refereeing calls played their part to push Gawad to game ball (Farag used his newly learned French to scream “mon dieu!” in response to a call at one point) and the game ended 11-9 in Gawad’s favor off of a no-let decision.

A series of long exchanges in the 4th game showed that Farag was determined to stick with his game plan, and it paid dividends; he gained the upper-hand of most exchanges, taking an important 6-3 lead. Gawad, however, responded with some beautiful touch shots of his own, bringing the scoreline back to 5-6. Staying the course like a player wise beyond his years, the gazelle-like Farag continued to keep the ball high and tight, and a series of brutally long rallies pushed the 23-year-old to take the game at 11-6, aided by three errors from the fatiguing Assassin.

In the final game, many questions hung in the air… Could Farag stick to his disciplined game plan? Would Gawad have enough left in the tank to close it out? Two early errors from Farag and two lovely winners from Gawad put the latter ahead 4-1 quite quickly; he was clearly pushing for the finish line.

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But Farag was having none of it. Hanging in with some incredible retrievals and inconceivably tight balls, the feisty Farag caught up and stayed close. In the meantime, Gawad started taking longer and longer in between points and was looking visibly drained.

At 5-all, Farag hit a severely low cross court that Gawad dived for and ended up sliding into the wall, catching his shoulder. Perhaps hoping that the brief stoppage would give him a short respite, it was of no use. The following rallies continued at a furious pace while Farag’s physical demeanor remained sprightly.

Even as the points were nail-bitingly close up until 7-all, the writing was on the wall; Gawad had run out of steam and Farag – who had clearly done his physical homework over the December break – was pulling away. Farag got to 10-7 and on the first match ball opportunity, finished it off with a backhand drop that even the rapid Gawad couldn’t quite get his racket on.

Both Egyptians exited the court to a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd. It was a delightful and thrilling end to a great event, and a class act from two incredibly talented and sportsmanlike professionals.

Interview with the winner of the 2016 Montreal Squash Open, Ali Farag:

PSA M35 Montreal Open 2016, Club Sportif MAA, Montreal, Canada.
Final:
(2) Ali Farag (EGY) bt (1) Karim Abdel Gawad (EGY) 3-11, 18-16, 9-11, 11-6, 11-7 (97 mins) 

Pictures by Trevor Bowes (www.squashbeast.com)

 

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