‘This changes the whole thing – you have to bring more of yourself on to court’
By ALAN THATCHER and SEAN REUTHE
James Willstrop led a chorus of approval for the new best-of-three games format in the Canary Wharf Classic last night as a packed crowd at the East Wintergarden enjoyed four matches of intense, high-quality drama.
The tension will be racked up several notches this evening with four mouthwatering quarter-finals featuring all eight seeded players in the 15th anniversary of one of the most popular tournaments on the PSA World Tour.
With a record $100,000 in prize money, the draw features six of the world top 10, and it would have been seven but for an unfortunate hamstring injury which forced Nick Matthew to withdraw last week. Sadly, the East Wintergarden aficionados have been robbed of the opportunity to bid a roaring farewell to the man who has claimed the title a record six times.
Many of his major battles at Canary Wharf down the years have featured his long-time rival Willstrop, who has won the event four times and got off to a winning start last night.
The 34-year-old Willstrop is a real crowd favourite and has won four of the seven finals he has participated in, including the very first in 2004, when he triumphed 4-2 against Thierry Lincou in a best-of-seven final.
Pictures by PATRICK LAUSON (patricklausonphotography.co.uk)
and STEVE LINE (squashpics.com)
His opponent last night, Scotland’s Greg Lobban, had beaten top qualifying seed Declan James to qualify for the main draw for the first time and brought the best out of Willstrop as he covered the court well and hit some fine shots of his own to push the Yorkshireman hard at the beginning of both games. But Willstrop showed his class to come through by an 11-6, 11-7 margin.
“I’m very pleased to win that,” Willstrop said afterwards. “He’s so strong and so fast and I know that the rankings show a certain story but the players don’t even look at that story really. I had to prepare so well and I’m really pleased to win.
“This best of three is a fantastic sharpener for everyone and you have to bring more out of yourself. It’s completely different, it changes the whole thing and it’s fascinating stuff for us. The idea is that it’s fascinating for the crowd, so hopefully it’s working.”
Before signing some white Dunlop balls and hitting them into the crowd, Willstrop added: “I missed last year for the first time and what makes it so special to be back is the crowd here. They are not only enthusiastic but knowledgeable as well and create a fantastic atmosphere in this wonderful venue.”
Willstrop will take on the in-form World No.6 Tarek Momen in the last eight after the Egyptian came out on top against French qualifier Gregoire Marche, winning 11-7, 11-6 on his first Canary Wharf Classic appearance since 2012, when he lost out to Willstrop in the quarter-finals.
“I’m feeling good, it’s my first time here since 2012 and it’s been six years,” said Momen. “I’ve always loved this venue and every year I skip it I feel it is a shame because the draw is just too strong and sometimes you’re seeking points. I’m happy that I’m in a position now where I can afford to play.”
Asked how it felt being married to a world champion, he collected his thoughts, smiled and said: “The day that Raneem (El Welily) won the World Championship was the proudest day of my life.”
Fellow Egyptian, world No.3 Ali Farag, is also married to a successful player, with he and his wife Nour El Tayeb making history by winning the US Open finals on the same day last year. Farag capped his Canary Wharf Classic debut with a 2-0 win over tournament wildcard Nathan Lake.
Lake, who enjoys training bases in both Cheltenham and New York, came flying out of the traps as he matched Farag stride for stride and played at a level that belied his ranking of World No.50. But Farag finally adapted to the left-hander’s style of play and he claimed a closely-fought victory by an 11-8, 11-9 scoreline.
“It’s too early to form an opinion [on best of three] at the moment but I think the most important thing is that we need to try it out,” Farag said.
“For anything in life, if it’s sport or a business, you have to change and always evolve and I think that, even if it’s not the right change for the sport, we need to keep trying new things. Thanks to Canary Wharf because it always takes the initiative, such as the three referees system to start with, then back to the one referee system with the video decisions and now with the best of three.”
Lake produced an outstanding performance and was cheered on by a vociferous crowd of supporters who grew louder as he fought back from a large deficit in the second game. One particular shot, a boast that hit the right hand nick, drew a huge roar from the crowd and a smile from his opponent.
Lake said: “I am very pleased with how I played for most of the match and it was nice to get such fantastic support.”
Farag added: “Nathan played extremely well and I had to work very hard for that victory. I have trained with him in New York and I knew how tough an opponent he would be and how difficult this match would be.
“Playing here at Canary Wharf for the first time was a huge honour and a real pleasure. There are hardly any tournaments which have such a sell-out crowd for the first round, and then every day throughout the tournament, and that makes this one of the most special events in the world.
“The atmosphere is fantastic and it’s easy to see why the players love coming here.”
Farag will do battle with Australia’s Ryan Cuskelly, who claimed his first ever win over Spain’s Borja Golan to ensure a clean sweep for the seeded players.
Golan flew into London after winning last week’s Montreal Open and Cuskelly said: “It was a tough match, and I knew it would be. It was my first time playing best of three and I was very edgy because every point is pretty important and he [Golan] has had some good results in the last few weeks. I relaxed a bit as the match went on and played a few shots but it’s very intense. You can’t afford to lose your concentration for a single moment.”
The best-of-three games scoring format will continue in tonight’s quarter-finals, with the traditional best-of-five games format returning for the semi-finals and final.
Play starts at 6pm and will be shown live on SQUASHTV (Rest of World) and Eurosport Player (Europe only).
PSA $100,000 Men’s 15th Canary Wharf Classic 2018, East Wintergarden, Canary Wharf, London, England.
First Round (Bottom Half):
 Ryan Cuskelly (AUS) bt Borja Golan (ESP) 2-1: 11-5, 6-11, 11-7 (63m)
 Ali Farag (EGY) bt [WC] Nathan Lake (ENG) 2-0: 11-8, 11-9 (32m)
 Tarek Momen (EGY) bt [Q] Gregoire Marche (FRA) 2-0: 11-7, 11-6 (32m)
 James Willstrop (ENG) bt [Q] Greg Lobban (SCO) 2-0: 11-6, 11-7 (33m)
Quarter-Finals (Wednesday, March 7):
 Mohamed ElShorbagy (EGY) v  Simon Rösner (GER)
 Daryl Selby (ENG) v  Marwan ElShorbagy (EGY)
 Ryan Cuskelly (AUS) v  Ali Farag (EGY)
 Tarek Momen (EGY) v  James Willstrop (ENG)