‘We’ll have lots more hard matches in the future’
By HOWARD HARDING in New York
World number one Mohamed Elshorbagy celebrated his 26th birthday in fine style today in New York where he led five fellow Egyptians through the first round of the 2017 JP Morgan Tournament of Champions which is marking its 20th year at the city’s iconic Grand Central Terminal.
The 26-year-old from Alexandria, seeded to win the prestigious PSA World Series squash title for the third year in a row, faced rookie Declan James, a qualifier from England making his maiden appearance in the tournament.
Showing no signs of the 103-minute marathon he survived against the odds less than 24 hours earlier to claim his unexpected place in the main draw, James took the game to his illustrious opponent – earning several game-balls in the opener before Elshorbagy eventually forged a 1/0 lead courtesy of a 16-14 game score.
Elshorbagy held game-ball at 13-12 when James dived to retrieve a seemingly impossible ball in the backhand corner of the all-glass court in Vanderbilt Hall only for the Egyptian to put the ball into the tin. The top seed inexplicably repeated this unforced error again just minutes later to give game-ball to underdog James.
Elshorbagy took full advantage of his early lead to win the next two games 11-5, 11-6 to claim his anticipated place in round two after 52 minutes.
“All credit to Declan – he put me under so much pressure,” said Elshorbagy afterwards. “He’s by far the best young English player coming through – if he gets the right people behind him, he’ll be something special.”
Despite losing, James was delighted with his first performance in the championship. “I was pleased that I took the game to him in the first game. He played those vital points so well – but that’s why he’s world number one.
“It was the first time I’d played him – and he told me after the match that we’ll have a lot of hard matches together in the future.
“It’s incredible not only to play in this event for the first time, but to play against the world number one. It’s something I’ll never forget,” added the Manchester-based 23-year-old.
Elshorbagy was joined by his younger brother Marwan Elshorbagy in the second round.
With the pair’s head-to-head record poised at two-all, the Grand Central crowd sensed a close encounter when fifth seed Elshorbagy junior took on Daryl Selby – the unseeded Englishman who finished last year with four successive semi-final berths on the PSA World Tour.
But the world No.6 from Egypt played with determination and control to see off the experienced 34-year-old, ranked nine places below, 11-6, 11-7, 6-11, 11-8 in 63 minutes.
“I probably played better than he did in the first two games,” said 23-year-old Elshorbagy. “Then he stepped up his game in the third.”
Twice a quarter-finalist since 2012, Elshorbagy enjoys his time in New York City. “This is one of the best tournaments on the Tour. Every time I step onto the court here, I want to make the most of it.”
With only one match win in four events since October, the tall and imposing No.7 seed Omar Mosaad had a point to prove when he took on younger fellow Egyptian Mohamed Abouelghar in the first round.
The 28-year-old from Cairo reached a career-high No.3 world ranking midway through last year after a formidable run which featured four finals in five months including a first-time appearance in the World Championship climax from the position of seventh seed.
Seeded seven on the Vanderbilt Hall court, Mosaad truly imposed himself on the match – despatching the 23-year-old Abouelghar 11-6, 11-6, 11-7 in 44 minutes. It was a repeat of his win over his Cairo colleague at the same stage of the event two years ago.
“I was thinking about that match today,” said Mosaad, currently ranked 9 in the world. “He played really well today.”
Recalling his low over the past three months, Mosaad said: “I wasn’t playing badly but when I went on court I kept losing my focus. I needed to de-stress myself. I think I did a good job today. I tried to focus 100% on every point.”
A four-match unbeaten run over more than ten years came to an end today when South African Stephen Coppinger beat Spain’s former world No.5 Borja Golan in a closely-contested three-game marathon.
In game one, underdog Coppinger raced to a 7-3 lead before world No.16 Golan rapidly reclaimed the upper hand to reel off seven points in a row to reach game-ball at 10-7. But it was the plucky Cape Towner who ultimately prevailed, saving five game balls before finally closing out the game 16-14.
Coppinger, ranked 21 in the world, went on to take the next two games 11-5, 13-11 to claim his breakthrough win after 69 minutes.
“That opener felt like three games in a single game,” explained Coppinger later. “I was 7-3 up, then he got seven points in a row, then it was neck and neck to the finish.
“It would have been a very different match if he had won that one,” admitted the 32-year-old.
Golan, who was playing his first match since taking time off to nurse a back injury, rued that first game: “I should have closed it out from 10-7,” said the dejected Spaniard.
Home hopes for success in the men’s event rested exclusively on the shoulders of Todd Harrity, the two-time US champion from Pennsylvania who was awarded the event’s wildcard.
The 26-year-old, ranked 51 in the world, faced Fares Dessouky, a rising Egyptian star boasting a career-high world No.12 ranking. The pair met at the same stage 12 months ago – and Dessouki repeated his victory over the rapidly-improving American, this time winning 11-9, 11-4, 11-6 in 31 minutes.
“He played much better this time,” admitted the 22-year-old from Alexandria. “He’s improving all the time.
“I have had a good run recently, winning a big title in India last November,” added Dessouky. “I think I’m playing better and I’m enjoying my squash. I’m trying to mix up my game. If I want to be in the world top ten, I need to do that.”
When asked by event MC Will Carlin if he felt his game had improved, Harrity told the partisan crowd: “I think I’m playing better and moving better – I’m getting more experience on the big stage.
“I’ve moved to Bristol in England – I needed to get away from home where it was too comfortable. It’s been a good switch – it’s helped toughen me up.”
An Australian and a Frenchman were the other two winners on day one at Grand Central. Ryan Cuskelly, the US-based world No.19 from New South Wales upset Hong Kong’s higher-ranked Max Lee 11-7, 11-4, 6-11, 11-8 to earn a place in round two for the second year in a row, while third seed Gregory Gaultier stopped Peruvian Diego Elias.
Gaultier, the 2009 champion and runner-up in 2013 and 2014, was a semi-final casualty 12 months ago when he was forced to retire after just six points.
“Last year was nothing compared to what’s going to happen this year,” said the Czech Republic-based world No.3 after his 11-3, 11-4, 11-3 first round win.
J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, Grand Central Terminal, New York, USA.
Results – Round One (Top Half): 2017 J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions
 Mohamed ElShorbagy (EGY) bt [Q] Declan James (ENG) 3-0: 16-14, 11-5, 11-6 (52m)
Ryan Cuskelly (AUS) bt Max Lee (HKG) 3-1: 11-7, 11-4, 6-11, 11-8 (73m)
 Marwan ElShorbagy (EGY) bt Daryl Selby (ENG) 3-1 11-6, 11-7, 6-11, 11-8 (63m)
Stephen Coppinger (RSA) bt Borja Golan (ESP) 3-0: 16-14, 11-5, 13-11 (69m)
 Omar Mosaad (EGY) bt Mohamed Abouelghar (EGY) 3-0: 11-6, 11-6, 11-7 (44m)
Tarek Momen (EGY) bt [Q] Tom Richards (ENG) 3-1: 11-6, 8-11, 11-5, 11-2 (36m)
Fares Dessouky (EGY) bt [WC] Todd Harrity (USA) 3-0: 11-9, 11-4, 11-6 (31m)
 Gregory Gaultier (FRA) bt Diego Elias (PER) 3-0: 11-3, 11-4, 11-3 (39m)
Draw – Round One (Bottom Half)
 Nick Matthew (ENG) v [Q] Alan Clyne (SCO)
James Willstrop (ENG) v Miguel Angel Rodriguez (COL)
Chris Simpson (ENG) v [Q] Paul Coll (NZL)
[Q] Tsz Fung Yip (HKG) v  Ali Farag (EGY)
 Simon Rösner (GER) v [Q] Nafiizwan Adnan (MAS)
Saurav Ghosal (IND) v [Q] Nicolas Mueller (SUI)
Cameron Pilley (AUS) v [Q] Raphael Kandra (GER)
Zahed Mohamed (EGY) v  Karim Abdel Gawad (EGY)
Pictures by STEVE LINE (www.squashpics.com) and PSA