Top seed loves the variety of the women’s game
By Alan Thatcher, Squash Mad Editor
The women’s event in the PSA World Series Finals presents a wonderful contrast of international styles to delight spectators lucky enough to be in Dubai and a global audience of fans tuning into watch on their TVs, laptops or screens set up in squash club bars.
With the women gaining parity in prize money in most major tournaments, it is fitting that they share the stage with their male counterparts in this high-profile end-of-season spectacular being played out in front of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
England’s Laura Massaro is the top seed in Dubai and would no doubt happily jog up every staircase in the building if she manages to win the competition.
One month ago, she came close to winning a second world title only for Egypt’s Nour El Sherbini to claim her first Women’s World Championship in Kuala Lumpur after edging a dramatic battle in the fifth game.
That triumph propelled El Sherbini to number one in the rankings but Massaro is fired up to prove a point or two in Dubai.
Massaro is 32 and ranked two in the world. Alongside her in Group A, she will be up against Egypt’s Nouran Gohar, an 18-year-old who has raced to number six in the world, American Amanda Sobhy, fresh out of Harvard and ranked eight in the world, and the phenomenal Malaysian Nicol David.
Like Massaro she is 32. David is the most successful female squash player since Australia’s Heather McKay dominated the scene for almost two decades in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now, though, she has slipped to five in the world rankings and desperately needs a big performance to silence a steadily-growing chorus of whispers about her status and future in the game, especially after losing at the quarter-final stage of the World Championship at home in Malaysia.
Massaro is looking forward to the challenges presented by each opponent, and the fast and furious format of playing best of three games in the round-robin pool groups.
She said: “Obviously the World Series Finals has the best eight players in the world so everyone there is in good form and playing well. Every match will be a tough one, and with the match format you have got to be ready right from the off. There are some interesting matches and although it is a different format from what we normally play I am looking forward to it.
“A lot will depend on the temperature. If the indoor structure has air-conditioning then the temperatures could be similar day or night.
“But if it’s really hot then the temperature will play a big part. It’s the same court we played on when the World Series Finals were played at Queen’s Club, but that was in January when it was freezing cold outside.
“If it’s hot you know you are in for some long, punishing rallies. You certainly don’t want the courts to be dead, but whatever the conditions it will be the same for everyone.”
Asked about her rivals lining up in Dubai, Massaro responded: “You can watch other players and get carried away with playing the opponent, but I have always made sure that I just concentrate on playing my own game. I try to focus on myself and my own game plan before a match.
“You need belief in your own ability to go on court and execute a plan. A lot of players are more instinctive and some are calculated.
“As for Nicol David, I have had a tough time playing her throughout my junior and senior careers, and it’s been difficult when she has been so dominant at times.
“Her main strength has been her sheer physicality during those times when she was dominant. I am not saying she has been overly physical but in terms of the speed side of the game, she set the bar incredibly high and the rest of us were all chasing.
“She is incredibly determined, and when you add her speed and endurance, and her ability to play good squash, she is such a solid, all-round player.
“You know that you need to play at that level to do well, let alone stay at number one for nine years as she did.”
From the vast experience of Nicol David, Laura switched her focus to the teenage phenomenon Nouran Gohar. After winning the British Junior Under-19 title in January, she reached the semi-finals of the Tournament of Champions and the Women’s World Championship, and was runner-up in the British Open to compatriot Nour El Sherbini.
Gohar’s match times in the British were eye-opening statistics. She beat former world number one Raneem El Welily in 70 minutes in the quarter-finals, overcame reigning champion Camille Serme of France in 80 minutes in the semis, and then battled for 75 minutes before losing 11-8 in the fifth to El Sherbini in the final.
That suggests a big-match temperament of solid proportions not usually seen in someone so young.
Massaro added: “She has this phenomenal intensity. For someone so young, she maintains this high intensity throughout her matches. She has this relentless hitting power and moves you around the court.
“She is different from what you usually expect from the Egyptian girls. She is flamboyant, but in a different way. She hits good lines and length and varies the height on the front wall.
“She brings something new to the game. We have not had to deal with a hard hitter like her for quite a while.”
As for the left-handed American, Amanda Sobhy, Massaro said: “She is similar, another very powerful player. She is pacey and hits accurate lines but also likes to attack as well.
“She is an exciting player to watch and it’s good to have all these different styles. You have the hard hitters and the soft, accurate shot players providing a real contrast. You have different body shapes, people move differently, and have different swings and technique when they hit the ball.
“Good and bad, I play them all, learn from them all and build on that experience with a game plan. It doesn’t work for everyone but that is my style.”
Massaro and Nick Matthew flew out to Dubai on the same flight from Manchester on Saturday morning and Laura was pleased to see her England team-mate back in action after an ankle injury.
She said: “I trained with Nick in Sheffield last week with David Pearson and he seems to be enjoying it.
“We are the only two English players going there and it will be nice to have him with us. He has been working with my husband Danny as well. We have all been looking forward to the trip and having some friendly company as well, supporting each other if we can.
“Nick and I and all the English players are grateful for the support we receive from England Squash at major tournaments.
“In Dubai we know we have a minimum of three matches whatever happens Obviously there are a lot of Egyptians at every tournament and you can’t play them all at once. You just treat them as individuals and just another opponent.
“Playing Nour in the World Championship final, we both definitely left everything on the court. I had a few little niggles and was tiring a bit at the end of the fifth, but that’s just the way it goes. The match from the day before against Raneem took its toll.
“But it’s swings and roundabouts. When I won the Worlds in Penang, Nour had a brutal five-setter the day before. With a World final, you know how much you want to win and if you are not both fighting for every point there is something wrong.
“After the final, I knew that I had tried my hardest. Losing such a big match can get you down for a week or two but my overall view of my squash was that I played close to my best.
“That week in Malaysia I played some of my best squash ever. The semi-final was brilliant and again, it was one of my best matches.
“It is important to focus on the positives. It was a positive week and I played in my third world final. Not many people have done that or won one of them. I certainly felt very positive and there was a quick turn-round to head in to the European Team Championship.
“You can’t turn up at an event like that with your chin on the floor. It’s a team event, with some good banter and lots of laughs, and when I stepped on court in Poland I felt I was in the right frame of mind.
“I was in the right mental state, and I look forward to taking that with me to Dubai. I followed the Euro Teams with two weeks of good training. My fitness levels are good and I am very excited to be going out there.”
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