Sunday, March 3, 2024

James Willstrop is back with a bang … and a bagel

James Wilstrop sways into this forehand shot against Omar Meguid
James Wilstrop sways into this forehand shot against Omar Meguid

Canary Wharf turns into a giants’ causeway as James Willstrop produces a magical return to his theatre of dreams
By LEE HORTON at Canary Wharf

JAMES WILLSTROP went through the menu on his return to Canary Wharf last night, a year after he left the iconic venue fearing he may never play again.

The former world number one and four-times winner of the London event feasted on the adoration of the capital crowd, devoured his opponent Omar Abdel Meguid and even savoured the delights of a first-game ‘bagel’ as he powered to an 11-0, 11-9, 11-7 victory.

The Yorkshireman’s career was on the line 12 months ago following his final defeat at the hands of great rival Nick Matthew.

“On the Saturday morning, after the final at Canary Wharf, the difficulties were slightly more pronounced than usual, but I still wasn’t thinking the problem would be significant enough to change the whole outlook of the next year of my life,” said Willstrop.

“In June I took the call from a doctor who delivered the news that my career could well be over. The layer of cartilage in the hip had worn thin and was arthritic.

“Arthritic? At 31? I wondered if I should visit the local Job Centre.”

Fortunately, surgery, rehab and a lengthy lay-off put Willstrop back in the game and his performance last night suggested he will be climbing the world ranking charts sooner rather than later.

“It feels very, very good to be back on court, “ added Willstrop. “I’m enjoying playing again but I wouldn’t have put a bet on winning a game 11-0. It was a little scrappy out there, two lumbering guys, but overall I have to be pleased with that result.

“I am playing the big German Simon Rosner tomorrow night. That will be another challenge but I am looking forward to it immensely. I love the venue and the new court is terrific.”

Simon Rosner checks on Lucas Serme after a mid-court collision
Simon Rosner checks on Lucas Serme after a mid-court collision

Germany’s Simon Rosner snuffed out the challenge of Frenchman Lucas Serme then spoke of his desire to build on his world ranking of nine.

“I spent a long time trying to break into the top 10 players in the world, and now that I am here, I want to rise even further,” said Rosner following his well grafted 11-7, 11-5, 11-8 win over the rising French star.

Rosner has added a steeliness to the cerebral, and it’s a potent cocktail. While Serme pushed and probed looking for frailties in the German’s game, the chinks were few and the rewards even fewer.

The closest he got to Rosner was a painful blow to the head when the players had a coming together in the third game.

It will give him a headache in the morning, but not as big as the one he’ll get trying to fathom how to beat his Eurozone foe in the near future.

Peter Barker attacks on the volley
Peter Barker attacks on the volley

Teacher 3, Student 0. A somewhat saucy summation of Peter Barker’s predicted win over Egyptian qualifier Mohamed Abouelghar but, in truth, pretty accuate.

Peter Barker celebrates
Peter Barker celebrates

Barker hails from a nearby postcode and after a dozen or so years on the PSA circuit, more than knows his way around the block. Some call is nous, some refer to experience…whatever it is, Barker has it in spades.

The stats are irrelevant, but for the anoraks among us, Barker won 3-0, hit 22 winners , few errors and romped home by a country mile. Abouelghar is among the new breed of Egyptians who will shine bright in future. The present, however, still has the hallmark of Barker, Matthew, Shabana, Selby and Willstrop firmly engraved on the silverware.

For the Essex man, the only way is effort, and the hard yards on the training court are, for now, enough to keep the young bucks at bay. Like all good students, Abouelghar asked questions. Sadly for him. Barker had the answers.

Barker said: “I read the report from the qualifying competition and could see how dangerous he is.

“So I apologise for making the match so boring. I just wanted to play the ball as straight and tight as I could to avoid giving him too many openings, because I know how he can put the ball away.”

When asked about the wave of young Egyptians marching up the rankings, Barker added: “There are so many of them. Each year the English guys have a meeting and we always ask which player we’ve got to watch out for next. But there are so many of them it’s becoming harder and harder.
Some of them have overtaken us already.

“But it’s great to have that kind of rivalry in the sport, especially in big tournaments like this.

“I love the new court. It’s hot and bouncy, which suits my game.”

Max Lee (green shirt) gets in front against Mazen Hesham
Max Lee (green shirt) gets in front against Mazen Hesham

Sports fans in these parts of London are well accustomed to the Hammers so the ranks of West Ham fans in last night’s Canary Wharf crowd were fully appreciative of the thundering hammer-forehand Egyptian Mazen Hesham brought to the show against Hong Kong’s Max Lee.

It is a fearsome weapon and the 20-year-old from Cairo unleashed its full ferocity as he went toe-to-toe with the tournament’s seventh seed over five punishing games that finally halted the clock after 76 minutes.

Hesham, ranked 27 in the world and climbing fast, is a raw talent with a mighty punch.
Sadly for him, Lee, who at a distance looks half his size and half his age, can handle the big-hitters and has plenty of beguiling skills to back it up.

Lee won a fascinating match up 3-2 to make the quarters for the second year running. His ability to absorb Hesham’s pace while limiting the error count was crucial and telling.

The Egyptian crashed down 31 straight winning shots but matched that with 26 errors. In contrast, Lee errored just 10 times. Match-winning stats at this level.


Afterwards, Lee suggested he had been lucky in game five. A little gracious, maybe, but certainly now how the crowd saw it. They may be Hammer fans, but they can spot a battling winner a mile off.

As for Hesham, he will no doubt be reflecting on the tins he hit at 9-9 and then on match ball down.

In his pre-match interview he had admitted to playing crazy, reckless, erratic squash.

Most of it is wonderful to watch but, in the end, it all came down to those two crushing mistakes when a calmer, less outrageous approach was called for.

PSA International 50, Canary Wharf Squash Classic, East Wintergarden, Canary Wharf, London.

First Round: (7) Max Lee (Hong Kong) beat Mazen Hesham (Egypt) 9-11, 11-3, 11-9, 8-11, 11-9 (76 mins)

(2) Peter Barker (Eng) beat (Q) Mohamed Abouelghar (Egypt)

11-7, 11-5, 11-8 ( 49 mins)

(4) Simon Rosner (Germany) beat (Q) Lucas Serme 11-5, 11-9, 11-6 (52 mins)

(5) James Willstrop (Eng) beat (Q) Omar Abdel Meguid (Egypt) 11-0, 11-9, 11-7 (39 mins).

Pictures by STEVE LINE ( 


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