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.
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
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.