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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Andy Whipp on Mostafa Asal: Cut out the gamesmanship and he could be squash’s biggest superstar

Andy Whipphttp://www.awsomesports.co.uk
Ex-professional player, top level coach for 17 years and owner of AWsome Sports squash clothing. Andy was the regular on-court coach to world champion and world No.1 Laura Massaro, day-to day coach to world No.4 Stewart Boswell and Commonwealth bronze medallist Nafiizwan Adnan.

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Raging Bull must be told to clean up his act
By ANDY WHIPP – Squash Mad Columnist

I couldn’t not write about Mostafa Asal this week, could I?

Off the back of his matches this week I’ve read tweets complaining about his antics, the amount of refereeing decisions and one person saying “Watching that match I feel like I’ve lost a year of my life!”

This is a shame to read as we want our sport spoken about positively. So let’s have a look at what Mostafa brings to our sport – good and bad…

A good starting point would be to have the definition of “gamesmanship” in our head.

Gamesmanship is the use of dubious methods to win or gain a serious advantage in a game or sport. It has been described as “pushing the rules to the limit without getting caught, using whatever dubious methods possible to achieve the desired end”.

Asal is nicknamed the Raging Bull. I’d be tempted to call him a Freight Train From Hell! He’s a terrific player. Joey Barrington described him as having “a lot of weaponry” in his commentary yesterday. This is putting it mildly.

He’s incredibly powerful. His speed is sensational. He can hit winners from every area of the court, and he’s developing a maturity to his play where he is willing to rally when needed in order to carve out opportunities to attack.

This is an incredibly mature trait at such a young age. He’s only just turned 20 for crying out loud! It seems obvious he is destined to be World No.1 soon, like it was with Nour El Sherbini, Ramy Ashour and Mohamed ElShorbagy when they were 19 and 20.

He certainly likes the media attention. He’s developed some kooky celebrations, which some people may not like, but it certainly adds something new and different. Since we have not had Gregory Gaultier entertaining us with his play and personality for a few years, I truly believe the sport has missed having a strong personality, and Asal seems happy to fill that void.

Having someone of his ability at his age should only bring about positive reactions, and he should be wonderful for the sport, like when Sherbini, James Willstrop, Ramy and Mohamed were teenagers mixing it up with the world top 10.

It was fresh and exciting to watch, and great for squash as a whole. However, Mostafa Asal is not all good news … it’s not a bad thing to have some kooks which can be publicly divisive, a la Gaultier, especially in his early to mid-twenties … but I fear Mostafa Asal has become the most dislikable player on the PSA World Tour.

In his match against Mohamed Abouelghar a few days ago, commentator Johnny Williams called it exactly right at 1-0 in the first game. He said he expected Asal to use “stop-start” tactics to try and get the win against an in-form Abouelghar.

This proved to be a particularly pertinent statement. While a stop-start match does not always make for good viewing, there is nothing wrong with this as a tactic to prevent your opponent getting into a rhythm, so long as it’s achieved by varying rally lengths and shot selections, and not achieved by arguing with referees, and manipulating the rules.

When done fairly, in order to disrupt your opponent, it’s a very mature and tenacious tactic to employ and is very watchable. Marwan ElShorbagy and Asal are masters at it — and again, amazing for Asal to be this streetwise at such a young age.

For most, Asal displayed unacceptable behaviour during his match against Abouelghar. Let’s look at the movement off his shots which caused several issues for Abouelghar and Fares Dessouky this week.

No wonder Dessouky called him “annoying” after their quarter-final battle. And the rest.  Just ask Paul Coll after their recent battles when Asal began his shirtless match celebrations.

Putting those moments of exuberance aside, let’s take a closer look at the real issues that appear to be upsetting his fellow professionals. Clearly, Asal does a few things on court that deserve careful analysis.

One thing he sometimes does (not every time) when coming out of the back corners is he takes a very “narrow line” back toward the T after hitting a straight drive. By this I mean he wanders from the back corner toward the back, L-shaped corner of the service box on the same side. This does not give his opponent much room to move on the inside of him to the ball and therefore there is often slight contact for the opponent.

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This is not really enough to ask for a let but it’s incredibly frustrating to be bumped most times you go to play a drive. The refs do not notice this. Only decent players tend to notice this.

Really, Mostafa’s movement should be slightly more “arched” back to the T, taking more of a movement sideways after he’s played his shot, toward the central line before moving forward to the T. This movement needs to be addressed.

Another favourite of his is to fully utilise his long legs. He regularly reaches out to shots around the middle of the court and keeps his back leg firmly planted on the T, therefore blocking a large area of floor space that his opponent cannot use to move to the ball.

Being cursed with stumpy little legs, I certainly wish my legs were longer so I could use them in a similar fashion. But . . . there is a generally accepted area in which you can do this. If the shot is played within a metre of the T then I think you’re entitled to “hold” the T area, but if the shot is played from reasonably close to the side wall the back leg should move a little to allow space through the T for the opponent.

A player cannot constantly leave their back leg dangling in their opponent’s way with the intention for them to either move a long way round or to trip up. James Willstrop, Simon Rosner and Declan James are tall guys, and they do this fairly. They know when to hold their space, and when to relinquish space for their opponent.

A big issue which I hope – and I’m sure he will stop quite soon with the correct guidance – is constantly looking for the player and not the ball. His first thought is to try and move into his opponent if he can, instead of finding a space to move to the ball.

In my opinion asking for a let should be the last option. The first thought of a player when retrieving a shot should be “can I move in front or behind my opponent to get to the ball?”

If there is no way round, then a let can be asked for. John Masarella did a decent job last night of trying to make Asal realise he was often opting for unnecessary contact by punishing him with a “no let”. Free flowing squash should always be encouraged. Strong refereeing can quickly stamp this out of his game.

There is another scenario which was not spotted by John in Asal’s match against Dessouky. Because Asal reads the game well and often can anticipate where his opponent will hit the ball, he stands firm and blocks his opponent’s path out of their shot.

What’s more, he actually pushes them back toward where they have hit the ball. This appears that they are way too close and Asal manufactures a “stroke” situation, even though the opponent was desperately trying to get out of the way in-order to give him access to reach the shot, but instead they were trapped by the “Freight Train”. This is bad and needs to be spotted.

If we head back to our definition of gamesmanship, Asal seems to fit that description of “gaining an advantage using dubious methods”. I am definitely not calling him a cheat. He does not continue after picking up a double bounce, for example, which is commendable.

I would consider his dubious movements outlined above as “clever uses of his body”, without calling him a “regularly intentional blocker”, although once or twice in a match he will cross the line.

There have been cases before of young Egyptians intentionally blocking. Legend Ahmed Barada would be one, and Wael El Hindi was another. Wael got warned by the Egyptian federation as they did not want their top players to give the nation that reputation, and Wael definitely improved. They set a desired standard that Egyptian squash was to be clean and fair and not a “win at all costs” nation.

Egyptians in the last 20 years have wowed us with an abundance of young talent breaking onto the world scene. Karim Abdel Gawad could be difficult in his early twenties. I remember him and Marwan had two very unpleasant matches when they were breaking into the world top 10.

The PSA spoke to both of them afterwards to point out that those types of matches were not acceptable, and Gawad seemed to change overnight. He is now an exemplary player, not just in his silky skills, but his attitude and his fairness. He always looks to find a path to play every shot as well as giving his opponent a path to retrieve his shots.

He’s an absolute delight to watch, and a perfect role model. Currently Asal is not the role model we want him to be, but he can be.

He’s a young man, full of testosterone, who clearly wants to win. His desire is there for us all to see. We want players like him, but he needs to change.

If the PSA intervene now he will correct his ways very quickly, like Gawad did, and he will be the inspiration the sport wants. He could inspire unlimited new players from many nations to aspire to achieve what he has done already.

This is genuinely not a persecution of The Raging Bull, but merely advice for the PSA and the referees. I believe the initial responsibility lies with them to help him change. Intervene now to create possibly one of the most exceptional players of our time. A player any sport would be proud of.

When he does iron out his “overzealous actions”, everyone will look forward to watching an Asal match on SquashTV, and more than likely will want him to win.

Pictures courtesy of PSA


How Andy can help your club:

AWsome Sports creator Andy Whipp is now offering squash consultancy / sports club consultancy. Given his many years’ experience of all things squash at every level of the sport, and after countless people asking for his advice on a range of squash and club matters, he has decided to use his expertise to offer a FREE squash consultancy service.
AWsome Sports are happy to help with league and club committee ideas and decisions, as well as squash advice to parents and professionals.
So if you need some general advice, inspiration, fresh ideas, or a mediator for your club or league committee debates – please contact Andy at [email protected] for more information.

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14 Comments

  1. A good analysis, of dare I say,’The Raging Cheat’.
    But how does the squash officialdom stop or shall I say change him.
    Well for one, the standard of refereeing is poor at best, and that another discussion to be had at a later date.
    Second, the PSA have to come down very hard on him with fines and short bans. Unfortunately as you know Andy, the PSA is made up of some somewhat self serving individuals with their own interests paramount.
    But to use the excuse that the ‘The raging Cheat’ might bring more people into the game is questionable. This also is another discussion to be had.

  2. I very much like the tone of your article although there are some points I do not agree on. For example, Asal has numerous times played on after playing a double-bounce. He definitely does NOT call his own doubles in the majority of cases where he plays them.
    Another thing you neglect to mention is that Asal clearly tries to force decisions in his favour. He does this by loudly yelling in triumph after hitting a contentious shot, sometimes before his opponent has even had time to attempt to reach/play a return. He even yells when his shot is clearly down or when it is a clear stroke against him. He then wastes time by looking absolutely dumbstruck back at the ref, demanding explanations, and even after a review he still keeps on arguing the point.
    This happens time and time again and the refs do little to stop this behaviour. If he shouts before the rally is done it should be an automatic stoke against him, regardless. It falls in the category of deliberately and unduly distracting your opponent, at the very least.
    I admire his skills and power, but this guy has no idea of HOW to play squash properly. He has zero respect for his opponent and for the spirit and ethos of the game. It is all about himself and whether he wins or not, regardless of the means. It seems as if he is either deliberate or has zero brain cells.
    Either way, if he is the future of squash, then squash is my past.

  3. Wow Barry, don’t hold back!
    I agree about the refereeing. I feel the video refereeing in particular has been awful. They seem to make the wrong decision every time. There are certain scenarios which are always frustratingly inconsistent.
    I also don’t understand why they do not control the towel situation. I thought initially it was only every set amount of points, eg. every 8 points, they are allowed a quick wipe down. This rule has gone out the window completely and I don’t know why. I actually feel if “towel privileges” are abused they should have their towel removed altogether for their next match.
    Maybe next weeks blog…

  4. I agree about his shouting and his general demeanour on court. At the moment he has a feeling of injustice every time he loses a point. I don’t mention it because I wanted to focus on his movement and I didn’t want the blog to be too long and unreadable.
    His towel antics also need to be stamped out.
    However he is very young. He can change and I’m sure he will. Don’t give up on squash just yet Stefan!
    Like I said with Gawad. He was becoming unwatchable and now he’s one of the true artists of squash and one of my favourite players ever.
    Asal will be great, I’m sure of it.

  5. I have written about this before. My personal view is that the rules of Squash need to change around Lets and Strokes.

    Asal is simply using the rules as they are written and applied. He is not the only one who does this, he is just not as “slick” as other top players. You would expect nothing more or less from a professional athlete. You could say it is cheating but, that is for the referees and the authorities to manage. After all, when was he last awarded a penalty stroke against him – either he is playing within the rules, the rules do not adequately cover what is happening or the rules are not being applied.

    Lets and Strokes are all about providing a fair, level playing field and fairly compensating the player trying to get to the ball when they can’t – it is not about awarding points (although a Stroke clearly does).

    The rules need to focus on the “fair” outcome of a rally, not a mechanical “this is a Let, this is a Stroke” (although ironically, I think a mechanical application of the rules would definitely help and seems rarely applied i.e. did the player make EVERY effort to clear the ball etc).

    The focus on the “rules” is what has got football in the mess it is currently in with VAR – you cannot create a “rule” that covers so many different shades of grey.

    My preference would simply be that a Let is given when there was “interference” but it was unlikely there would have been a winner or for safety. A Stroke would then logically be where there was “interference” and it was likely there would have been a winner. These rules (more guidance really) would need to be interpreted (something I have always felt is missing from the rulles) in the context of where the player causing the interference SHOULD have gone.

    Obviously, the player would need to have been able to get to the ball!

    An additional rule would need to be added such that a referee can directly sanction a player for deliberately “blocking” or breaking up play as a direct result of poor “form” on court.

    Finally, we need a very clear description of expectations from the PSA / Squash authorities as to what constitutes the expectations of players moving around the court. If it is “not the done thing” to take a narrow line out of the corner, this should be laid out and referees should make expectations clear when there are issues.

    I think most players at all levels could interpret this much more easily than the current rule set (as has been said above, the video referees get themselves tied in knots over the rules which seems crazy but just demonstrates the problem).

    If done correctly, and with further innovation in the coverage (perhaps Joey B et al can “draw” on the replays to show where players should have moved etc will help viewers understand the rules (this is one of the good things in Football coverage we as a sport could learn from).

    Let’s face it though, Squash is like Basketball in that it is explicitly “non-contact”, but anyone who has played these games know it can be a LONG way from non-contact. As Andy knows, I am a bit of a hacker at Squash – if the refereeing is confused at the top level, just think of what it is like at the bottom!

    The objective has to be to make the sport pleasurable to watch, exciting and most importantly, understandable and accessible for non-players. At the moment, the rules of Squash on Lets and Strokes are impenetrable, even for experienced players!

  6. The standard of refereeing – especially the video decisions- has been particularly poor in the last two major events. Andy notes that they are not picking up on things and that the issues with his movement are only noticed “by decent players” – not sure I agree, I realise it is different on a TV screen but I notice it. And either way, all this means surely is that the referees aren’t knowledgeable enough? The PSA and the Egyptian federation clearly need to do their bit too because this is cheating, however you attempt to blur lines which are actually pretty clear. I don’t have a problem with the showboating, just the lack of honesty.

  7. A really enjoyable article, thanks Andy. I also agree with Chris’ comments that the changes here need to be imposed by the PSA. They need to help clear up widespread confusion. Perhaps an open mic on discussions between the ref and video ref as in Rugby Union? (It’s just a thought)

    I think the real shame amongst all of this is two fold: It has us talking about a player of incredible talent for all the wrong reasons. Secondly, it has even die hard squash fans electing to not watch matches that Asal is involved. So what would that mean for new watchers/ fans getting into the sport?

    I can’t even imagine how incredible it must be for Asal to be competing in the upper echelons of the sport at such a young age. I’d hoped/ imagined that watching matches 12-18 months ago that his behaviour (I’m using this to cover a multitude of sins, Movement/ blocking, gamesmanship, needless celebrations, dialogue with refs) would inevitably calm down as he established his place on tour. Unfortunately it seems to be getting steadily worse. Every game he now takes part in is followed by a deluge of scathing comments by fans who simply love the game of squash, yet can’t take his antics any more (He’s 19/20 years old and they’ve already given up on watching him!). I’ve personally elected to not watch his matches during this tournament, and I struggle to think of any other player in 25+ years of watching the sport that has me electing not to watch.

    Beyond the stand that the PSA’s referees must take against his behaviour, and I feel they absolutely must take a very firm line with him (such discussion after every single match means something needs to happen). The player himself clearly needs guidance (be it coach, mentor, family member, another pro) to help change the pattern of behaviour we’re seeing every time he steps on the court. He’s so young that there is plenty of time for a change for the good, and if that happens I’ve no doubt the fans will flock to watch a player that will likely be a force on the world stage for the next 15 years.

  8. To my eyes Asal is a conspicuous example of a problem that’s endemic to the men’s pro game. Some of the recent greats — the Shorbagys, Gaultier, and Matthew are the first examples that come to mind — and many others not quite at that level have made gamesmanship a significant component of their play. As this article illustrates, squash has “understood” rules of clearance that players can violate without penalty. The cunning and the ambitious will take advantage.

    What’s really striking is how much better the women are about this. For me the women’s game today is much more watchable than the men’s. Equal pay? They deserve more pay.

  9. Your comments are relevant.
    Nevertheless, Asal, despite his crazy talent, is supposed to set an example for the youngest who worship their idols as was the case for Ramy, Amr, Jansher, Ali Farag as true ambassadors.
    The problem with Asal is his total disrespect for his opponent(s) (Paul Coll, Miguel, Abouelghar …), his repetitive antics, his screams, his unfair play (double bounce played), his blockages, his soaked towels, his intentional slowing down of the game, all this very unsupportable ….
    For the record, Shorbagy hated Gaultier’s antics at TOC and blamed him for it.
    The referees, the PSA and the Egyptian federation should summon Asal and sanction him for all this despite his young age. This is no excuse ….. have you seen Ramy (even more talented than him) at 19 who beat all the best in the world, act like that? …… no.
    And Him, we all wanted to see him play ….

    It’s all well and good on the part of the referees to threaten not to “protect his blows” but they do not penalize him for all his anti-play …. too bad because with his talent he could be a good ambassador, alas without reframing, he will harm squash.

  10. Hello Andy,
    I started reading your article about Asal on the Squash Mad website.
    This prompted me to watch all of the 3rd game between Asal and Abouelghar. To be frank it was almost unbearable to watch. I do not think either player were bothering to be fully aware of each other…or if they were aware of each other it did not seem for the best of intentions.I always thought squash was meant to be an non contact sport and both players were ignoring this…both players ran in to each other from behind when they felt like it… a sad way to try to get lets.. Also perplexed as to why their squash bags were allowed on court, in the game I watched both players stopping for breaks…both ignoring there is meant to be continuity of play. I do not wish to see any more of the rest of this particular match. I sincerely hope no developing player copies anything that was in the match. Hopefully we are not going to see another match like it.

    As you know there are great squash matches to watch, e.g PSL matches that I have seen where 2 players move smoothly around the court with both playing fairly and striving for excellence. I feel lucky that I have seen some great squash matches. Of course generally one is usually engrossed in watching top players playing, and constantly looking and picking on their excellence in every way it is shown. I love playing squash and watching squash.

    Debbie

  11. Several of my Squash Playing Friends and I are regular Pilgrims at the premier Pro Squash events in the USA as well as on Squash TV. We have been treated to watching the greatest Racket Athletes who ever walked the face of the planet. However, I am finally going to venture an opinion, again, as it is an essential reminder for the sport.

    First of all, both husband and wife World Champions Tarek Momen and Raneem El Welily represented those who are at the very pinnacle of Sport – in every way. And not just Squash with its well known traditions of balancing competitive instincts with conduct and Sportsmanship!

    It is true that traditions are counterproductive when they lower the competitive nature, playing standards and natural movements in rankings reflecting the natural ebb and flow of a Player’s game. However, there are things that we all know are mistaken for raising competitive standards but actually have the opposite effect. Some of the most egregious of many ways this happens on court are listed below.

    Blocking Players movements to the T from the half court or back peddling directly away from either corner after making a Drop, delay if not stop the Retrieving Player from making time for a good ‘get’ and return stroke.

    Another more subtle way is to stand on either side of the T so as to force the Stroke Maker into a Rail (Parallel) instead of having the option of a Cross Court. Depending on whether the Rail is flush with the wall, or worse pinches at the corner, it can then be cut off by the Retriever.

    Another more blatant way is for the Retrieving Player to stand with his/her body flush with that of the Stroke Maker. Body contact blocks the racket back swing and results in a poor shot with a ball that can be put away. Imagine trying to drive a Volley-Nick with this being done! I know first hand.

    There are ways to counter these blatant transgressions on court – and I’ve used them. However they inevitably lower the standard of play!

    Stroke production results from some of the most well timed, highly coordinated and finely balanced sensory and motor skills! They are often made at the very limits of neurophysiological (fatigue) extremes! Just the thought, even if it is subconscious, of waiting to get ‘hit’ at the wrong time and place for pulling off a highly timed, coordinated and finely balanced stroke puts a crimp into making it. Which is the intended if unspoken, effect!

    Many kinds of lets, challenges and referee calls resulting from these and other violations buy time for a losing player. However, in most cases they only delay the inevitable .

    All of this contributes to a lower repertoire and standard of strokes, requiring fewer deep digs in the gets. This lowers tactical, strategic, technical and physical levels with more superficial rallies and lower overall standards of play! Not to mention being outright dangerous as the game is a semi-contact sport!

    I know this is understood well by Pros and Administrators of the game. However, I do not lack relevant experience in this aspect of Squash mostly while competing in retirement in the USA.

    In India I did compete effectively on the National Circuit, including with Team Members who held their own against the Pros. We were too polite, obliging and respectful on the court! This too gifts games and matches. After all we are supposed to be Competitors and Adversaries if being so in the highest traditions of Sport and Squash. Being overly accommodating and respectful on the court, before the results are final is the opposite but equally counterproductive way of lowering Standards of Play and Squash.

    The trends sketched above are sending the game in the wrong direction. All of this necessitates a decisive, vigorous but balanced intervention by Referees and Administrators of Squash.

  12. There were several instances in the last game of the Aug. 20 match with Ali Farag at the Allam British Open where Asal tried to play double bounces, clear double bounces, according to the announcers. Farag had trouble containing his displeasure during post game remarks.

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