Matthew shows who’s number one but Ashour is hungry for Swede taste of glory
Nick Matthew won the bragging rights in the battle of the world number ones to advance into the final of the Swedish Open at the expense of Frenchman Gregory Gaultier in Linköping.
Matthew, who had beaten Gaultier in his last two meetings on the PSA Tour, produced a sensational performance to prevail 12-10, 11-8, 11-1 and inflict Gaultier’s first defeat at the $70,000 event since 2010.
Matthew will now face Ramy Ashour in his fifth final in six events, after the former world number one narrowly prevailed over sixth seed Amr Shabana in five pulsating games.
Matthew, 33, said: “The first two games there was nothing between us. We both had a good patch and although we never really dominated a succession of points, we got a run of maybe three points in a row that often evened it out to nine all or 10 all in both games.
“It could easily have been two love to Greg but it was two love to me and if it would have been one all, I’m sure it would have been one hell of a five setter.
“But once you get that two game lead and if you get a good start in the third, it is a long way back for your opponent so that was my goal and that served me well today.”
A gruelling 30 minute first game showcased two players at the peak of their powers, with a marathon rally drawing a standing ovation from the sellout crowd at the Linköping Sporthall.
“I think the rally we had at 7-8 in the first game was probably the hardest rally I’ve ever had in my life. My lungs felt like they were going to explode,” Matthew revealed afterwards.
Gaultier, though, was left to rue throwing away a game ball as a backhand drop clipped the top of the tin to force a tie-break.
Matthew capitalised on the opening and punished the 31-year-old from Aix-en-Provence with a forehand cross court which clung to the backwall as Gaultier dropped his first game in 10 matches at the Scandinavian event.
Matthew continued in the ascendancy to race into a 6-2 lead in the second game, before Gaultier fought back and moved within a point of the Sheffield ace at 7-6 after unleashing a crushing forehand nick just moments after diving to retrieve a drop.
However, Matthew remained unflustered and despite a controversial decision from the referee to prevent the England number one from using a video review late in the game, Gaultier threw his racket at the backwall in frustration after Matthew doubled his advantage thanks to a stroke decision.
It was a shame, then, that the third game failed to blossom into anything other than a one-sided encounter as Gaultier barely seemed interested after losing the opening four points. Matthew stormed through to win 11-1 to clinch victory in 61 minutes and remains on course for his fourth title at the Swedish Open.
However, he faces a resurgent Ashour in the final after a pulsating battle with fellow Egyptian Shabana. The vastly experienced Shabana is still playing squash of the highest quality, as he demonstrated during his triumphant march to glory in the Tournament of Champions.
But Ashour, who was missing in New York, finished strongly to wear down his compatriot in the fifth game. It was a see-saw battle, with Ashour characteristically casual in the opening game.
He seems to use the first game to gain a feel for the ball, the court, his surroundings and somewhere in that maelstrom of emotions emerges a plan. It was obviously something of a master-plan as he crushed Shabana 11-2 in the second game only for his opponent to respond in the third. Ashour squeezed home 11-8 but failed to maintain the momentum in the fourth.
Shabana is still the sweetest striker of a squash ball on the planet, and, when the mood takes him, demonstrates a desire to continue competing at the highest level for as long as he can. From 3-3 he produced a run of points to gain an 8-3 lead and closed out the game to take the match to a decider. This time Ashour built a solid early lead and from 6-1 up it looked a formality.
However, Shabana refused to capitulate and brought the score back to 7-9. But there was no stopping Ashour as his finish matched his start to the game, clinching victory in 72 minutes of enthralling squash.
Afterwards, he was like a stand-up comic as he said: “It is always an honour to play Shabana. He is a quadruple world champion and at 54 years old he is still playing as well as he was at 11.”
I’m not sure how many PSA titles Shabana (pictured right) won as an 11-year-old, but we get the drift, Ramy.
When this guy plays with a smile on his face, you know he is feeling well, moving well and hungry to succeed. It’s all boiling up to be an incredible final.
And Ashour has a point to prove against Matthew after injury forced him to walk off court during their long-awaited battle in the World Championship in Manchester.
SWEDISH OPEN FINAL HEAD TO HEAD FROM HOWARD HARDING:
Pictures by Sofia Tapola