Tournament of Champions: One title yet multiple targets for finalists
By MICHAEL CATLING – Squash Mad Senior Reporter
Four-time World champion Amr Shabana and top seed Gregory Gaultier will contest the final of the 2014 J.P Morgan Tournament of Champions after battling past James Willstrop and Mohamed Elshorbagy, respectively, in four games at Grand Central Station in New York.
Shabana, who knocked out second seed Nick Matthew in the quarter-finals, upset the seedings once again to defeat Willstrop 11-5, 5-11, 11-5, 11-5, while Gaultier needed six match-balls in an enthralling fourth game before eventually ending Elshorbagy’s challenge 5-11, 11-6, 11-8, 14-12 in 75 minutes.
Victory for Gaultier (pictured above with Elshorbagy) draws the French number one level with Matthew at the top the PSA rankings but success in the final would see him surpass the triple world champion from England to become number one outright.
“Becoming world number one again by winning this match was a big goal for me,” said an emotional Gaultier.
“Being world number one is a big thing for every player and I’m happy I got through today. Everybody was talking about it and I just tried to focus on the match and my tactics – but it gives you a bit of tension and I started the game flat and he came out on fire.
“Today was my turn – one day it will be his – but I keep pushing to try and beat these young players. One day he’ll be up there instead of me so I’m going to enjoy it for a bit but I have another match to play tomorrow.
“Shabana has been unbelievable this week – when he is playing like this he is probably the best player.
“To me he is the most inspiring guy and technically I think he is the best. When I’ve watched him this week he has inspired me – but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to beat him – I want to win tomorrow,” added the 31-year-old from Aix-en-Provence.
Meanwhile, Shabana will be gunning for his third Tournament of Champions title and his first since 2007 after securing a second successive upset over English opposition in the space of 24 hours.
“I’m really over the moon,” said Shabana after defeating Willstrop in just over an hour. “Any time you get a win over a player the calibre of James Willstrop you have to be playing your best.
“I’ve made it to the final and I’m happy but I’m just trying to take it day by and day and do my best.
“Playing in a final at Grand Central is an amazing experience. The crowd really get behind the players and we love it so win or lose you just try and enjoy the experience.”
But despite his lower-ranked seeding, Shabana was the marginal favourite heading into his 29th Tour meeting against Willstrop, who admitted after his quarter-final win over Peter Barker that he had ‘yet to hit top form’.
An imperious display in the opening game duly justified Shabana’s billing as the 34-year-old Egyptian reeled off a succession of inch-perfect lengths and forehand nicks that left the England number two flailing at thin air.
However, Shabana had fleeted between the great and the ordinary in his last-eight match against Matthew and repeated the feat against Willstrop as the world number nine seemed content to conserve energy once Willstrop stormed back in the second game and raced into a 7-1 lead.
But once Willstrop clinched the second 11-5, Shabana (pictured left) was a class above in the following two games as he instigated several attacks from the mid-court and barely surrendered control to a heavy-legged Willstrop.
A sumptuous backhand cross court nick clinched victory for the Egyptian, who remains on course for a 19th PSA World Series title.
Victory for the left-hander also gave Elshorbagy an added impetus ahead his semi-final encounter with Gaultier, after the world number four had spoken glowingly yesterday about his “idol” and how an all-Egyptian final would be a “dream come true.”
And at one stage, it looked like his dreams would turn into a reality as he pummeled Gaultier in a relentless opening game to inflict the Frenchman’s first dropped game of the tournament.
Gaultier, though, had won all eight of their previous meetings on Tour and kept his notorious fiery temper in check to peg the 23-year-old back in the second game.
The top seed completed a remarkable turnaround in the third game and deservedly led for the first time after capitalising on Elshorbagy’s profligacy on the backhand side.
The Alexandria ace proceeded to exchange points with Gaultier in a nail-biting fourth game, before the Frenchman edged ahead to secure three match-balls.
Like in his quarter-final encounter against Simon Rosner, though, nerves began to kick in and Elshorbagy took full advantage to force a tie-break.
Another two match-balls came and went before Gaultier finally clinched a dramatic tie-break 14-12.
The world number two proceeded to weep on the shoulder of his fallen opponent as he moved one game away from reclaiming top spot in the February world rankings.
Pictures by Steve Line (SquashPics) – courtesy of the Tournament of Champions website