By ALAN THATCHER
North American Open Squash Championship 2011:
World’s leading stars renew rivalry in Richmond
By ALAN THATCHER
World champion Nick Matthew will be seeking revenge from his great rival Ramy Ashour next week in the North American Open Squash Championship, which is being staged at the stylish Westwood Club in Richmond, Virginia.
The two players enjoyed a series of phenomenal battles last year as they competed for the world number one ranking position.
That rivalry was renewed in the first major PSA World Series event of the year in January, when the mercurial Egyptian Ashour triumphed over Englishman Matthew in the final the Tournament of Champions in New York.
Now the world’s leading players are heading to the USA for the second 2011 World Series event, affectionately known as the NAO, which takes place from February 20-26 with prize money of $115,000.
Defending champion Matthew is looking forward to returning to Richmond. His maiden victory in the tournament last year helped propel him to the world number one ranking status for the first time in his career, in June 2010, and provided the springboard for a sensational season of achievements.
He said: “Reaching the number one spot in the world rankings was one of the main goals I set myself last year. Winning the World Open and achieving a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in India were the others and there is no doubt that winning in Richmond helped that process.
“Winning matches and winning tournaments gives you the confidence you need to succeed. There is no doubt that the NAO is up there among the greatest tournaments in the world, and that is a special tribute to a dedicated team of people who make it happen every year.
“All the players look forward to going to Richmond. They know they will be well looked after, the hospitality and the administration is first class, and we are all looking forward to playing in a new venue at the Westwood Club this year.”
Top seed Matthew is preparing to lock horns again with Egyptian genius Ashour. The duo have shared the world ranking for the past year and have featured in the past two Richmond finals, Ashour winning in 2009 and Matthew triumphing last year.
Despite Matthew’s ascendancy for most of 2010, Ashour began 2011 in style by winning the sport’s first “Major” of the year, the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions staged at Grand Central terminal, New York.
Despite the distractions of a revolution back home in Egypt, Ashour produced a focused performance to regain the title he had won in 2009.
Now free of injuries, Ashour is also determined to regain the Richmond trophy. He dedicated his triumph in New York, his 19th PSA World Tour title, and the 13th World Series crown of his career, to the people of Egypt, where squash ranks second only to soccer in popularity.
Ashour said: “The really good thing about New York was that I was moving well and in touch with my body. I was so happy to be feeling good again and moving so well on court. Nick moved me to a lot of corners in the final.”
Matthew, who has also returned to the fray fitter and stronger after a shoulder injury two years ago, was also pleased that Ashour was injury-free. He said: “It is good to have Ramy back on the tour. He is a much more exciting player to watch than I am.”
New British national champion Daryl Selby, who produced the most sensational performance of his career to beat Matthew in Sunday’s final, faces Malaysian Mohd Azlan Iskaner in the first round, with a seeded quarter-final against four-times world champion Amr Shabana of Egypt.
The tournament wild card is US international Gilly Lane from Philadelphia. He faces Canada’s leading player, Shahier Razik, in the first round, with the winner due to face top seed Matthew in the second round.
Ashour meets rising Swiss star Nicolas Mueller, who was promoted into the main draw following the withdrawal of England’s Adrian Grant.
The tournament features the new PSA seeding system, which has thrown up some tremendous first round clashes, including Australia’s former world champion David Palmer against New York-based Egyptian Wael El Hindi.
The tournament also has an unusual feature with several qualifiers drawn together in the bottom half of the draw, which offers a guaranteed second round place for at least two lower-ranked PSA members.
NORTH AMERICAN OPEN FIRST ROUND DRAW:
Top half Sunday
1 Nick Matthew (Eng) v Qualifier 1
Shahier Razik (Can) v Gilly Lane (USA)
Stewart Boswell (Aus) v Alister Walker (Eng)
David Palmer (Aus) v 8 Wael El Hindi (Egy)
7 Daryl Selby (Eng) v Mohd Azlan Iskander (Mas)
Simon Rosner (Ger) v Joey Barrington (Eng)
Jonathan Kemp (Eng) v Qualifier 2
4 Amr Shabana (Egy) v Arturo Salazar (Mex)
Bottom half Monday:
3 James Willstrop (Eng) v Qualifier 3
Qualifier 4 v Qualifier 5
Qualifier 6 v Qualifier 7
6 Peter Barker (Eng) v Omar Abdel Aziz (Egy)
5 Gregory Gaultier (Fra) v Qualifier 8
Olli Tuominen (Fin) v Mohammad Abbas (Egy)
Hisham Mohd Ashour (Egy) v Tom Richards (Eng)
2 Ramy Ashour (Egy) v Nicolas Mueller (Swi)