Top Seeds Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew Contend for Tournament of Champions Title
From BETH RASIN in New York
The world’s top two squash players Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew will contest a dream JP Morgan Tournament of Champions final after prevailing in stunning semi-final showdowns in the PSA World Series event, both of which drew standing ovations from the packed crowd at Grand Central Terminal in New York.
There were goose bumps tonight in Grand Central, and it wasn’t because of yet another New York City winter snowstorm. Rather, the capacity crowd in Vanderbilt Hall was thrilled to witness superb squash in two top-quality semi-final showdowns contested by four of the world’s best squash players.
At the end of each match the crowd was on its feet for a standing ovation in appreciation of the passion and artistry brought to the evening by three Tournament of Champions titleholders and one player hoping to win his first ToC trophy.
Current world No.2 and two-time Tournament of Champions titleholder Ramy Ashour delighted the crowd, and sometimes even his opponent, with his unique brand of squash artistry on full display in his semi-final against fourth seed James WiIlstrop.
“Ramy was superb tonight,” said Willstrop after losing to his Egyptian rival 11-4, 11-9, 11-8 in a reversal of last year’s finals where the Englishman defeated Ashour in three games. “This was the best he’s ever played against me.”
The prodigiously talented Ashour at his best is an artist creating a canvas of squash shots that no one has ever seen before. His palette was of the highest order in the night’s first semi-final.
The defending champion, who played a credible match but not his best, had no answer for the magic coming off Ramy’s racket. Ashour pocketed the first game quickly, winning it 11-4.
Willstrop mounted a challenge in the second, getting to seven all before Ashour ran off three straight points and won the game 11-9.
Down 5-9 in the third game, Willstrop edged back to 8-9, with the crowd roaring encouragement in the hope of seeing the match extended. Ashour quelled that hope with two winners to take the game 11-9 and move into the finals. Before leaving the court, the two players embraced, acknowledg ing their respect for each other.
“James is one of the most fair and talented players,” said the winner after the match. Referring to the fact that the crowd got especially involved in third game, during which both players applauded each other’s great shots, Ashour continued, “It was intense tonight but the last game especially was fun.”
While the evening’s first match had its share of poetic moments, the second semi-final was drama of the highest order. World No.1 Nick Matthew got off to a dominating start; he led the first game from start to finish, winning it 11-8.
When Matthew won the second game 11-4, it looked as though the sold-out crowd would be on their way home before the evening’s snowstorm was too far along. But two-time Tournament of Champions titleholder Amr Shabana wasn’t ready to call it a night.
Drawing Matthew into several long points, the third game was all Shabana as he played himself back into the match, winning the game 11-7. The fourth game saw the lead seesaw back and forth as both players continually raised their level of play.
Superb technicians each, the players used every shot in their arsenal to fight for the lead. Their tight rails didn’t leave much room for shot making, but at every opening they were looking to attack.
Matthew had two match balls at 10-9 and 12-11; after being denied a let on the first one after catching the back of Shabana’s foot on his way to the ball, Matthew was understandably perturbed.
Nonetheless, he regained his composure to draw a rare unforced error from Shabana to have a chance to win the match. But the player who is acknowledged by most of his peers to be one of the great players of all time showed why that is so; Shabana hit a feather drop shot to even the score at 12 all, followed by a crosscourt winner to go ahead 13-12. A tin by Matthew evened the match at two games apiece, much to the crowd’s roaring delight.
The fifth game was a masterpiece of squash strategy and shotmaking by both players. The 32-year-old Egyptian was diving for balls, hitting the floor and still managing to stay in the point. Matthew was stepping forward to volley the ball as far front as he could to keep Shabana behind him.
At 8-8 in the fifth, it was anybody’s match; the same was true at nine all. At 10 all, Shabana had to dive once more to scrape a forehand drop before it bounced twice; Matthew was all over the weak return, sliding it down the backhand wall for a winner.
This time, Matthew did not let the match ball out of his grasp, hitting a precise backhand drop that produced a rare tin from Shabana. After 88 minutes of dramatic, sometimes breathtaking, squash, Matthew reached his third Tournament of Champions fi nal.
“This match was a test at every level, of physical and mental capacity,” said Matthew after the match, tired but satisfied. ”But that wasn’t surprising, considering I was playing one of the best players of all time.”
In the post-match on court interview that was part of the evening’s live broadcast on espn3.com, Tournament Director John Nimick asked Matthew how the evening’s marathon match would affect his readiness for the final against Ashour. “This is what we train to do as professional athletes,” said Matthew, “so there is no reason not to be ready to do this again in 24 hours.”
Ashour, looking ahead to the final earlier in the evening before his opponent had been determined, said, “Tomorrow is the toughest match. It is not so much about the squash; it is about reaching the end of your destination. Tomorrow is about the pressure.”
The evening’s play earned a total of $300 to be donated to StreetSquash and $600 to CitySquash by J.P. Morgan in conjunction with the inaugural J.P. Morgan Charity Challenge – Scoring Points for Urban Youth Education for the benefit of tournament charities StreetSquash and CitySquash. For every game won in the championship, J.P. Morgan is donating up to $150 to the tournament charities. The players in the top half of draw are playing for the benefit of StreetSquash; the other half is competing for CitySquash. Each player earns $100 for his charity for every game he wins and an additional $50 for every game won in a tiebreaker. The StreetSquash donation now totals $6,950; for CitySquash it is currently $4,450.
J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, Grand Central Terminal
Semifinal results – Wednesday, January 26, 2011
 Ramy Ashour (EGY) def.  James Willstrop (ENG) 11-4, 11-9, 11-8 39 mins
 Nick Matthew (ENG) v.  Amr Shabana (EGY) 11-8, 11-4, 7-11, 12-14, 12-10 88 mins
ToC Women’s Showcase Exhibition
Vanessa Atkinson (NED) def. Olivia Blatchford (USA) v 11-9.12-10,11-2 (24 mins)
Schedule of Play
Thursday, January 27, 2011
ToC Women’s Showcase Exhibition
Vanessa Atkinson (NED) v. Natalie Grinham (NED) 6:30pm
J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions Final
 Ramy Ashour (EGY) v.  Nick Matthew (ENG) 7:30 pm
(Broadcast live on espn3.com)
Official Website: www.tocsquash.com