Nicol David and Raneem El Welily put on a show to savour in Cairo as women’s squash hits new heights
By DANNY MASSARO – Squash Mad Special Columnist
Two years ago on my return from the World Championships held in the stunning island of Grand Cayman I wrote an article about what I saw as a growth in the women’s playing standard. It came to my attention in that tournament in particular that the female players on the WSA tour had stepped up the playing standards across the board.
I remember outstanding qualifying matches and classic battles in every round through to the final. In general, girls were fitter, better supported and looked more confident than I had seen in past days. Being married to Laura, I was selfishly worried, yet overall I was just really proud to see such competition and athleticism spreading.
Back to today, I am sat on a flight returning from Cairo, the morning after the 2014 World Championships. This the last one under the WSA banner before the merger with the PSA men’s tour.
I had the absolute pleasure to commentate on the dramatic final match played by Nicol David and Raneem El Weleily. Admittedly, I am still in a type of shock at what I witnessed last night in that final but I bet not half as much as the players involved.
Who would have thought that the drama that unfolded just weeks ago in the final of the men’s world championship could be matched? Last year’s women’s final was also a dramatic battle, with Laura narrowly defeating Nour El Sherbini 11-9 in the final game of the final match, but this was different.
This was Raneem in her own club and country, the loudest support I’ve ever heard from a squash crowd, and with no female Egyptian player yet to win the game’s biggest title. This was simply epic.
Qualifying matches were competitive as ever and by the time eight of them had battled through three rounds, players in the main draw waited uneasily, having seen their playing standard. Gone are the days of top players having an easy match with qualifiers.
The top four seeds all had four of the young Egyptian players to play in the first round and I can tell you the rallies in those matches were tough, with experience just showing through.
The performance that stood out was Nouran Gohar beating last year’s finalist and No.4 seed Nour El Sherbini. The hitting power of Nouran on the backhand is breathtaking, and again pushing the boundaries of the female game.
The thing is that, nowadays, with the players being better and having certain strengths, if you do not get it tactically right you are going to struggle to win. There are 30 players, maybe more, all capable of beating each other on any given day, such is the development.
I was not alone in noticing the continuing improvement of the playing standard across the players. Tommy Berden, CEO of the WSA tour, Richard Eaton journalist and ever-present squash reporter, Omar El Borolossy, Egyptian national coach, David Campion, English national coach, plus many of the players themselves all at some stage of the week commented to me on the quality of the rallies and the enthralling contests they were producing.
The other pleasing aspect is that the variance in styles of play has continued to evolve. Match-ups are exciting and predictions hard to make. I believe there is more support for players and more committed coaching about. Players have continued to learn from each other and adaptations have been added. To me, most look more athletic and stronger than previously.
Creativity, reputation and skill alone is not going to get you far unless you can meet the movement demands coming from all the new styles of attack. You can’t leave gaps anywhere. They will be hit by the opponent and you will be beaten, and this is accentuated on the glass courts.
Off the court things have moved on, too. Last year, after a player-led Extraordinary General Meeting was called in Hong Kong, a brand new board was voted in by the players. This has been of huge significance to the tour and has led to major progression and optimism.
Debts have been reduced and prize money is going up. Perhaps the most significant development is the upcoming merger with the PSA. A pooling of resources, a shared vision and a much more marketable global product to sell in this ever-evolving age of sports sponsorship and business acumen.
Modern business success has a mindset on the lines of “give value and you shall receive” as opposed to “ask and you shall receive.” Squash is waking up to this philosophy. I’ve noticed little things becoming more professional, not least the way the game is presented by SquashTV and the Internet Media.
Tommy Berden (WSA CEO) has given a sure sense of leadership and his attention to the important details that sponsors and organisers value is exceptional. There is a fresh sense of direction, and credit must be given to those players who stood up for their tour and did something to improve it.
To finish, I have to get back to last night’s final. The hairs on the back of my neck have just come alive even thinking about it again. Sport can be so cruel yet so thrilling at the same time. Nicol saving four match balls (as last year,s champion did in her quarter-final) brought even deeper levels of mentality than we knew she had already.
Raneem, herself mentally stronger than before, controlled Nicol at will for much of the match with exquisite squash in the biggest match of her life so far.
She marched to championship ball like a player who knew she was going to win, yet at 10-6, Nicol (thinking of Mohammed Elshorbagy in the men’s final) simply refused to lose. So, it was an eighth title for Nicol, but this was not in the same fashion as many of her earlier world title wins. This was by far her toughest yet, particularly considering her semi-final battle with Omneya Abdel Kawy, who herself is in fine form again.
As for Raneem, I saw her sign autographs for at least 50 minutes after the match. Fighting the tears but smiling still, she could not move for young girls and boys asking her to sign rackets and have photos taken with her.
It was moving to witness such dignity and strength of character in a sportswoman. Her mother told me that she would be fine because they brought her up to understand that ‘ethics and values within sport’ is the most important thing above all else. A standard for all of us to follow.
With players like Raneem, these women are going in the direction which will take squash into the Olympics and beyond. That time will come and so will Raneem’s.
Pictures courtesy of www.worldsquashchamps.com