From BETH RASIN in New York
New York City may be in a deep freeze weather-wise, but there was some real heat in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall as fans packed the stands for first two quarter-final matches in the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions.
First up on the iconic glass court was top- seeded Ramy Ashour against eighth seed David Palmer. Going into the night’s match Ashour enjoyed a 9-1 winning record against the 34-year-old Australian.
However, with Ashour having been off his game at year end due to a hamstring injury, and Palmer playing superb squash in the opening rounds of play, there was a sense of possibility that perhaps Palmer might register the tournament’s first major upset. The first game saw the lead exchanging hands on almost every point until Palmer pulled ahead at 10-9 and then won the next point to take an early match lead.
With that positive opening gambit, the sense of a possible upset was heightened for the crowd, but not for Ashour. “Even when I was losing that first game, I was feeling good on the court,” Ashour said after the match. “Maybe I was bit concerned, but it made me push myself harder.”
The extra Ashour effort in subsequent games was immediately apparent; in games two and three Ashour never relinquished the lead. Palmer got himself back in the mix early in game four, first taking a 3-1 lead and then a 6-4 edge; one of those leading points was awarded to Palmer off a disciplinary stroke called against the animated Ashour when he stepped off court at 3-4 to have a discussion with the referee.
The 23-year-old Egyptian proceeded to quash any possibility of an upset when he ran off a string of seven straight points to earn a place in the Tournament of Champions semi-finals; in his four Tournament of Champions appearances, Ashour has made the semis all four times, the finals twice and has held the Trophy aloft once.
After the match, the voluble Ashour shared his enthusiasm for his progress in the championships. “It is so great to be in the semis after missing two big tournaments at the end of last year because of injuries,” he said. “I am getting better day by day, but it is not easy.” The Egyptian continued, “The injuries are still in my mind – those are my demons. I used to be thinking of only two things on court – where and how I am going to hit a shot. Now I am thinking of three things because I am also thinking about my body.”
Ashour’s semifinal challenger will be none other than defending champion James Willstrop who defeated rising Egyptian star Mohammed El Shorbagy in three straight games. In classic Egyptian style, the 20-year-old challenger, already a top ten player, came out of the starting blocks at full shooting speed to register an opening 5-0 lead. WIllstrop countered with accurate, tight rails and well-paced wide cross courts to fend off his challenger and edge out to a 6-5 lead, and then win the game 11-9.
The outcome of the second game was never in doubt as Willstrop led from start to finish. Although Willstrop also held the lead all the way through the third, El Shorbagy looked like he might extend the match when he tied the score at seven all after having been down 4-7. But the 20-year-old seventh seed tinned the ball 8-10 down, sending Willstrop into the semi-finals.
“Spotless,” was how former Women’s World champion Vanessa Atkinson described the match play of boyfriend Willstrop and he didn’t disagree. “I managed to be very accurate and I was rewarded,” he said. “I was really pleased with my performance. I felt really good on court- I felt fluent and my racquet felt good.”
The Ashour- Willstrop pairing will be the third time the two have played each other in the Tournament of Champions. In his 2007 Tournament of Champions debut, Ashour beat Willstrop in the quarter-finals in a match for the ages. In 2008, Ashour again defeated Willstrop, this time in the final to win the title. Last year was the Yorkshireman’s turn; he defeated Ashour in the final to take the champion’s crown.
When asked if he looked forward to playing Ashour, the usually taciturn Willstrop replied with Ashour-like enthusiasm, “I do, I do, I do,” he said. “Ramy is one of the great racquet players to ever hit the ball. Right now I feel I am on a par with him and could beat him on any given day. Our matches always offer the possibility of being quite exciting and entertaining. Plus I really like the guy.”
The evening’s session of play also included two ToC Women’s Showcase exhibition matches. India’s Dipika Pallikal defeated American Olivia Blatchford 11-7,11-8,11-9. Natalie Grinham, Australian born but now playing under the Dutch flag, fended off the reigning World Junior Champion Amanda Sobhy of the USA, 6-11,11-5,12-10, 11-9.
The day’s play earned a total of $700 to be donated by J.P. Morgan to StreetSquash in conjunction with the inaugural J.P. Morgan Charity Challenge – Scoring Points for Urban Youth Education for the benefit of tournament charities StreetSquash and CitySquash. For every game won in the championship, J.P. Morgan is donating up to $150 to the tournament charities. The players in the top half of draw are playing for the benefit of StreetSquash; the other half is competing for CitySquash. Each player will earn $100 for his charity for every game he wins and an additional $50 for every game won in a tiebreaker. With a total of 31 matches to be played, the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions competitors will earn a minimum of $9,300, up to a maximum of $15,500, to be donated J.P. Morgan. The StreetSquash donation now totals $6,450; for CitySquash it is currently $3,150.
J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, Grand Central Terminal
Quarter-final results – Monday, January 24, 2011
 Ramy Ashour (EGY) def  David Palmer (AUS) 9-11,11-5.11-6,11-8 43 mins
 James Willstrop (ENG) def.  Mohamed El Shorbagy (EGY) 11-8,11-7,11-8 38 mins
Schedule of play at Grand Central Terminal, New York
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Amanda Sobhy(USA) v Dipika Pallikal (IND 6:00pm
 Amr Shabana (EGY) v.  Laurens Jan Anjema (NED) 6:45pm
 Nick Matthew (ENG) v.  Peter Barker (ENG) 7:45pm
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Olivia Blatchford (USA) v Vanessa Atkinson (NED) 6:00pm
 Ramy Ashour (EGY) v.  James Willstrop (ENG) 7:00pm
Winners of Tuesday’s quarterfinals 8:00pm
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Vanessa Atkinson (NED) v. Natalie Grinham (NED) 6:30pm
Championship Match 7:30pm
Official Website: www.tocsquash.com