Tuesday, May 28, 2024

British Open Squash: Ruthless Nouran Gohar races to familiar final

Birmingham — Laura Massaro tells the story from a decade ago when a 15-year-old raw teenager, Nouran Gohar, with power hitting already in the locker even then, turned up for a tournament the former British and world champion ran in Chorley, Lancashire. She cared not one jot for her opponent, wrote Massaro in her book All In. “To her there was no pecking order between older, more established players and youngsters like her, she had no fear.”

Less than three years later, she reached her first British Open final, losing to Nour El Sherbini (her opponent on Sunday), before winning in 2019 and, as she alluded to after a highly convincing win over Joelle King and heading into another top-tier final with no pressure, having lost two of previous British Open denouements 11-9 in the fifth.

Nevertheless, that teenage aggression in 2013 has not been lost 10 years on, nor her ruthless ability to care not one jot for her opponent as she sent King packing off court for the eighth time in a row to reach her fourth British final – this time 11-3, 11-9, 11-1 in 31 minutes – matching Nicol David back in 2008. And all without losing a game here.

Bar a little stumble on her entrance to court, Gohar did little else wrong. She barely broke sweat in the opening game and a half. The Egyptian mixed speed, with precision hitting, boasting comfortably and maneuvering King. 

Sinatra The Musical is playing The Rep later this year, but Gohar was already well in tune here. Anything loose was pounced upon as she raced to a 6-3 lead in the second, before King rallied to 9-7, the best rally of the match ensuing and ending with a Gohar no let as the crowd found its voice. Backing King to the hilt, she responded and the Kiwi was finding success down the backhand wall. 

The 25-year-old Egyptian found her killer touch late on, though, and won the game with King falling mid-court and Gohar virtually out of the door, as the New Zealander bid for a let call.

It was Gohar who remained grounded in the third, racking up quick points as she did in the opener and confirming another highly polished performance. “I just want to learn and be ready, but there’s no pressure,” she said of Sunday’s finale. “I want to win it and I’ve won it before, but I would do anything to win a second one.”

She and coach Rodney Martin sat in comfort and were spotted smiling and joking as El Sherbini and Amanda Sobhy – attempting to beat her third Egyptian in a row – slugged it into five games in a riveting second semi-final. “I think they’re going to go for a big match tonight,” Gohar had proclaimed after her win. Her prediction was proved correct.

The three-time champion was tested all the way against Sobhy, who had beaten El Sherbini at the Black Ball Open. The US No.1’s depth accounted for the opener, before the Egyptian took the next two. A change of ball seemed to initially help Sobhy in the fourth, opening a 7-3 lead and then holding off an El Sherbini fight back.

The decider saw El Sherbini’s big game experience take hold, aided by a succession of strokes landing her way. Sobhy fought back to 8-6 down before points went against her. She’ll be back on home soil for the World Championships next month. Another showing like this and Chicago will revel in it.

El Sherbini said: “The level was very high and you have to get your best squash out. I am happy that it finally came in today’s match.”

And so it will be a battle of the top seeds. An all-Egyptian final for the fifth time in the last seven stagings and a Sunday to savour.

If there was one area which had rattled Gohar’s ruthless mindset this week, it was the constant reminder of the battle for World No.1 with El Sherbini.

“Coming into the semi-final, I had it in the back of my mind that the PSA keep reminding me that if I lose this then I’ll lose my World No.1 spot,” she joked. “They’ve reminded me about four times this week!”

The top seed won’t mind one bit if she crosses the line for a fifth time on Sunday.

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