By JANE BALL (Squash Mad Reporter)
England’s Finnlay Withington survived a fightback from Pakistan’s No.1 seed Hamza Khan to become the first English player to reach the men’s final of the WSF World Junior Squash Championships since 2002.
The top seeds in both the men’s and women’s draws were felled on a day of drama in the semi-finals in Nancy, France.
In the men’s draw, 3/4 seed Withington played some superb attacking squash to beat Khan, while in the women’s draw 5/8 seed Salma El Tayeb downed No.1 seed Kenzy Ayman in the first of two all-Egyptian semi-finals.
Withington now meets Rowan Damming, who became the first Dutchman to reach a World Junior Championship final. El Tayeb meets Amina Orfi, who fought back from two games down to beat Fayrouz Abouelkheir.
Ahead of their hotly-anticipated semi-final, both Khan and Withington may have been forgiven for feeling the weight of history and expectations, with Pakistan last sending a player into the men’s final in 2008 and England enduring a 20-year drought stretching back to an all-English final in 2002, which was also the last time two European players featured in the final.
Withington, however, appeared full of confidence in the opener as he made a furious start, blowing Khan away with both aggressive and controlled squash to take the first game 11-2.
Khan improved in game two and attempted to speed up the play, but was unable to prevent Withington from doubling his advantage when the Englishman edged the second game 11-9.
The Pakistani’s recovery continued in the third and fourth games, which he took 11-5, 13-11 to force Withington into a fifth.
The 18-year-old, however, was in a brutal mood and never looked back after storming into a 5-2 lead, with the 3/4 seed brushing aside the shellshocked Khan 11-2 to reach the final.
Afterwards, Withington said: “It means a lot to be the first English player through [since 2002] especially with it being Jimbo’s [Willstrop – who beat fellow Englishman Barker in the 2002 final] birthday today. I had to do it for him, and my family too. Doing it for England means so much.
“It feels different, because I’m representing my country. I’ve got to show everyone back home what England can do and how good we are as a country!”
In a repeat of this year’s European Junior U19 Championship final, Withington will face fellow history-maker Damming, who recorded a 3-1 victory over 14-year-old Egyptian Mohamed Zakaria.
Damming had made a good start to the first game to lead 4-0, before the attacking instincts of Zakaria came to the fore and the Egyptian took a one game lead with a 13-11 win.
In a nerve-shredding second game, Damming made another rapid start and took the opening five points, before the brilliant Zakaria forced mistakes from the Dutchman and pulled 8-6 ahead.
After trading points, both players had numerous game ball chances, with Zakaria – the youngest player to reach this stage in 18 years – having golden opportunities at 10-9, 11-10, 12-11, and 14-13. The Egyptian was unable to convert, however, with Damming eventually levelling the match with his third game ball to take the game 17-15, before closing out the contest with a pair of 11-8 wins.
Afterwards, Damming said: “I’m so happy I won this. I made so many unforced errors and I really made it difficult for myself, I’m very happy I made it. I don’t know what to say.
“I loved the crowd, there are so many people here and they’re so nice! Especially the Dutch people!”
There were more shocks in the women’s draw, as top seed Ayman fell to 5/8 seed El Tayeb.
Ayman had appeared to recover from a nervous start as she began finding good line and length, only for the hassling coverage and strong backhand of El Tayeb to prove the difference as the 18-year-old took the lead with an 11-9 win.
Ayman struck back with an 11-7 win in game two to restore parity, only for her previously reliable shots to the back to abandon her in game three as El Tayeb reclaimed the lead with an 11-7 win of her own.
From here, the 5/8 seed looked the more confident player and she eventually wrapped up the match with a decisive 11-6 win in game four.
“I’m overwhelmed! I feel so happy. I’ve been playing so well this tournament and I’m so happy to be able to beat the No.1 seed. Kenzy’s a very good player and has beaten me many times in the past, so I’m happy to be able to get the win here in the World Champs,” El Tayeb said afterwards.
El Tayeb will hope she can stun another higher seed in tomorrow’s final when she faces No.2 seed Orfi, who fought back from two games down against Abouelkheir in a scrappy encounter.
Orfi looked likely to be another high-profile casualty as she went 2-0 down after two 11-9 defeats in the opening games.
The No.2 seed finally gained a measure of control over the match as she took the third game 11-9 – though she would have been alarmed to almost allow a 10-4 lead to slip – and then the fourth 11-2.
In a tight fifth game, it was the 15-year-old who better held her nerve as, after seeing two game balls saved at 10-8, she clinched a spot in the final with a 12-10 win to become the youngest player to reach the women’s final since 13-year-old Nour El Sherbini in 2009.
After the match, Orfi said: “I thought about the match before me, where Hamza was 2-0 down. And I thought ‘this is the World Championship, anything could happen. Match ball up you can lose, match ball down you can win.’ So I gave it my all to win the match.”
The finals begin from 14:20 (GMT+2) tomorrow (August 16), starting with the women’s final between El Tayeb and Orfi. You can watch the action live and free on the WSF YouTube channel, alongside the Olympic Channel, Sport en France and other streaming partners.
2022 WSF World Junior Championship, Nancy, France.
[3/4] Finnlay Withington (ENG) bt  Mohammad Hamza Khan (PAK) 3-2: 11-2, 11-9, 5-11, 11-13, 11-2 (57m)
[5/8] Rowan Damming (NED) bt [9/16] Mohamed Zakaria (EGY) 3-1: 11-13, 17-15, 11-8, 11-8 (70m)
[3/4] Finnlay Withington (ENG) v [5/8] Rowan Damming (NED)
[5/8] Salma El Tayeb (EGY) bt  Kenzy Ayman (EGY) 3-1: 11-9, 7-11, 11-7, 11-6 (50m)
 Amina Orfi (EGY) bt [¾] Fayrouz Abouelkheir (EGY) 3-2: 9-11, 9-11, 11-9, 11-2, 12-10 (66m)
[5/8] Salma El Tayeb (EGY) v  Amina Orfi (EGY)
Pictures courtesy of WSF