As Nicol David stumbles, Leo Au and Max Lee fly the flag for Hong Kong and Asia
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
The China Open provided an incredible start to the season, with so many surprise results and outstanding contributions from Asian players.
The 2015 China Open, running in its fifth edition, saw the most Asian entries in the main draw. Both categories had four Asians in each, which makes up 25% of the 16-player draw.
In the men’s, which had a $100K purse, Max Lee of Hong Kong and India’s Saurav Ghosal qualified by merit, while Malaysia’s Ivan Yuen was given the wild card. Leo Au then created a seismic shock to join his fellow Asians in the main draw.
In the women’s, Nicol David led the entourage, with Hong Kong’s Annie Au and wild card Teh Min Jie of Malaysia. Delia Arnold, who climbed to a career high ranking of 12 this month, joined her fellow Asians in the main draw having gone through qualifying, and was glad not to draw Nicol or Raneem as her first round opponents.
Hong Kong men’s duo shine
The China Open proved to be a major hunting ground for Hong Kong’s duo Max Lee and Leo Au, who both had their share of scalps against much more established opponents.
Leo (right) made headlines first as he sent defending champion and former world number one James Willstrop packing in the qualifying finals, halting the tall Yorkshireman’s comeback, having led 2-0 before allowing Willstrop to draw level.
The following two days, Leo continued his giant-killing by taking out two top 10 players, first Simon Rosner and then Mathieu Castagnet, who only just broke into the top 10 in the September rankings.
His scalps earned him a semi final berth, his first in a $100K event, against eventual winner Gregory Gaultier. 2015 has been a memorable year for the Hong Kong number two, having won the Asian Championships in May and following up with another feather to cap when he beat Max Lee in the Hong Kong Nationals in June.
A clearly elated Leo said humbly, “It is a really good experience for me as I had never beaten any top 10 player. I can’t say I’m on the same level with them, as there are still lots of things I need to work on so to reach their level. But I’m happy to see I’m getting closer compared to my previous performances.
“It is my first semi-final of a 100k tournament. I never thought I could go this far in the beginning. I was only just hoping to get into the main draw! Lots of people who love squash back home are very happy about our performance.”
Fellow countryman Max Lee (right) made it two Hong Kong players into the quarter-finals after shocking world number one Mohamed Elshorbagy with a hard-fought 72-minute battle, having come back from 1-2 down. Unlike Leo, he was unable to follow up with another scalp, losing to Mohamed’s younger brother, Marwan Elshorbagy, the following day.
The performance by the duo drew praises from the Hong Kong camp back home. Hong Kong Squash’s Executive Director, Emily Mak, when contacted, said, “It was a very impressive performance from both Leo and Max. Everyone in Hong Kong are so proud of them. Their great performance is great proof and testament of their hard work and ability to be top class players in the world.”
Hong Kong’s Head Coach Tony Choi, added, “Both Max and Leo have made great progress over the year in areas such as fitness, skills and mental strength. I’m very satisfied with their performance in the China Open. The massive upsets of the top 10 players will certainly boost their confidence that reaching the top 10 can be realised someday.”
When asked if he saw that (breaking into the top 10) coming soon, he said, “Climbing up the rankings into the top 10 is not a once-off battle against top 10 players, but a matter of how the players maintain a consistent performance in all their matches. So if Max and Leo can stay focussed and be consistent, I believe the top 10 is not too distant for them. They have already proven their ability to be top 10 material this week.”
World Junior Champion ousts Nicol David
Malaysian duo The Min Jie and Delia Arnold were both sent packing in similar fashion in round one, losing in 24 and 23 minutes. It would have been a tall order to expect Min Jie to win against England’s Emma Beddoes, who is ranked just outside the top 10 while the young Malaysian is 66 places below.
But Delia Arnold’s match against American Amanda Sobhy was anticipated to be an interesting one, given Delia was now ranked seven rungs above Amanda in the September rankings. But clearly, it was a lot more one-sided than anticipated.
Hong Kong’s Annie Au barely scraped through her opening round against Rachael Grinham, who has a very similar style of play. Both players who love to lob and cut out rallies with deft volley drops.
Annie won it 11-9 in the fifth and her victory over the former world number one earned her a berth against the newly crowned world number one Raneem El Welily. Unfortunately, Annie was clearly not at her best and a retirement in the second game while trailing 2-11, 0-10 confirmed it.
The biggest shock of the tournament, came from Nicol David’s exit in the quarter finals to Egypt’s newly crowned world junior champion Nouran Gouhar.
The talented 17-year old had come back from a game down to take the next three to send the 2013 champion packing in 45 minutes. Having lost her 9-year reign at the summit of the rankings, the loss couldn’t have come at a worse possible time.
The Egyptian teenager proved this was no fluke by taking out British Open champion Camille Serme in straight games before losing out to world number one Raneem El Welily in the final. With the win, Raneem would have extended the points gap between her and Nicol further.
However, Nicol’s loss drew no panic from the Malaysian camp. When asked if they think Nicol would regain her top spot once again, Squash Rackets Association of Malaysia General Manager, Chris Brodie and the recently retired Ong Beng Hee both had no reservations about it.
Chris Brodie added, “Nicol’s loss to Nouran Gouhar was unexpected but not shocking. Nicol had a long break while Nouran has been playing, including winning the world junior title.”
Ong Beng Hee, who is now a coach with the national body, also said, “She will need to change her game a bit to get used to the 17-inch tin. So given time, yes I believe she will regain her spot. But nine years at the top is an amazing achievement itself.”
This is the first year the ladies event of the China Open is not won by a Malaysian. Low Wee Wern, the world number 9, won the inaugural event in 2011, beating compatriot Delia Arnold in the final, defended it the following year and won it again in 2014, while Nicol David won in 2013.