Skills and sportsmanship make it a special occasion in final men’s battle before PSA Tour shuts down
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
The quality of the squash was simply breathtaking; brilliant shot-making matched by some unbelievable retrieving. But one of the main talking points surrounding Friday’s final of the St. James’s Place Canary Wharf Classic between Mohamed ElShorbagy and Ali Farag was the mutual respect on display throughout the match and post-game interviews.
As ElShorbagy proudly displayed his second Canary Wharf trophy to a packed crowd at the East Wintergarden, those spectators warmed to the fact that the brutally punishing rallies they had seen frequently required shots of outstanding distinction to win them.
Whichever player conjured up those shots was frequently acknowledged by his opponent with a nod, a tap of applause on the racket, or, if in close proximity, a pat on the shoulder.
With the PSA World Tour closing down until the end of April because of the developing spread of the Covid-19 virus, ElShorbagy and Farag had clearly decided to put on a show to remember.
After 79 minutes of pure sporting drama, ElShorbagy won a thrilling encounter 11-8, 10-12, 11-6, 15-13, saving three game balls before clinching the crucial tiebreak to avoid the physical exertions that he knew may have been beyond him in a fifth game.
As he spoke to the crowd, the 2020 champion said: “The longer you play on Tour, you realise you spend more time with your rival than your family. Ali is not just a rival for me, he is someone who really inspires me and he makes me want to be a better squash player every day.
“I have played so many different players from many different generations, but if I get asked who is the toughest opponent I have played in my life, it will be him.
“It keeps getting harder every time we play and he keeps bringing something different to the game. I am really glad to see him back and it is such pleasure to be on court with him again.”
Later, in an interview with Squash TV, he added: “When I was up in the fourth we were playing at such a crazy pace. I kept telling myself to stay with him as he came back from 7-9 to 10-9 and I knew I had to do something special. It would have been a miracle for me to win the fifth. I went for it a few times and it paid off.
“Had it gone to a fifth of course I would have tried but he would definitely have had the advantage. Players like us, you can never write off. We always try our best and we both pushed hard and are very strong mentally. There were moments in the match where I had the upper hand he pushed back.
“The match showed that we are by far the best two players in the world. When we know we are playing each other we will raise our level.
“Over the past three or four years we have raised the bar for our sport and today was one of the best matches we have ever played against each other.
“The crowd certainly got involved and appreciated what we were doing to each other. Squash was the winner today because we both played at such a high level. It was 50-50 the whole way.
“Right up until the last point I did not feel comfortable in the whole match. I had to kill myself and gave everything I could to win every single point.”
ElShorbagy needed some moments of magic to finally win the tiebreak 15-13 and he was acutely aware of the risks involved.
He added: “In the fourth game I could not handle it as Ali came back from 7-4 down to lead 10-9 and I knew I needed to take a risk at that point. And I was lucky it paid off. At 10-9 I put in a drop shot from the back of the court because I had to do something different. That is what Ali does to you. He takes you out of your comfort zone.
“Ali inspires me a lot. He is the most clever, intelligent player I have ever come across, and he always brings something different to the game. I have so much respect for him. It is because of him that I want to get better because of him and I am pushing to improve every single day.
“I want to stay at world number one for as long as I can. If I am to lose it to Ali then I will lose it to one of the best players ever to play the sport.
“He is often compared to Jansher Khan because of the way he moves and that is very true. Even though I won, it is always 50-50 between us and always will.
“Each round I played different players (Mathieu Castagnet, Saurav Ghosal and Tarek Momen) who challenge you in different ways. But when you play Ali he challenges every single part of your game.
“That is why I had to bring not my A game, I had to bring a game I didn’t know I had. It was one of the best matches we have ever played against each other. In other matches, often one of us has been sharp and the other one tired, but this was one of the few times when we were both fresh.”
ElShorbagy suggested a solution that could help both players feel refreshed before major finals. He added: “In Chicago I suggested that often one finalist may have a tough semi-final and the other has an easier one, so, as in tennis, maybe we should look at having a rest day before the final.
“Playing the best of three system here helped. They were brutal matches in their own way but not as brutal as best of five, so we were both fresh here today.
“We need to have the rest day before major finals to produce a match like we had today. That is important for the sport to think about doing something like that.
“This could probably be the last match we play this season, and to have the two best players, it was good to have that. Honestly, what we are facing right now is something that the whole world needs to come together for. I hope that everyone takes care of themselves, not just squash fans, but everyone. I hope this is something that goes away very fast and that we can just come back to normal.
“It is such a shame what is happening (with the coronavirus). The PSA have made the right decision to postpone the Tour. We were all looking forward to playing the Grasshopper Cup in Zurich next week. We all wanted to play.
“For now, if the Canary Wharf final is the last match of the season, the two best players in the world were involved in it and produced a match of the highest quality.”
In an interview for SquashTV, Farag returned the compliments and was deeply moved by ElShorbagy naming him as the most dangerous opponent he has ever faced.
Farag, who completed his course at Harvard before joining the professional ranks, said: “Mohamed was already competing against all those famous names in that golden generation when I started out on the PSA Tour. By then he was already one of the best players in the world. So for him to say those things about me meant a lot.
“We can go home proud because the fans here and watching on TV saw a match that was played at high quality and with high spirits. Mohamed started really well and he did what I like to do, which is to contain people and them standing behind me for most of the match.
“He did it to perfection and I had to do something different in the second game and be more aggressive and attack. Then Mohamed came back with an even better plan in the third game. Mohamed is the toughest to play against because he is so tough to break down.
“In the tough moments I could see he was feeling tired but he kept pushing through.
“I can only be grateful for what he said on court. He played with that golden generation and of all the players he played against to call me out as his toughest opponent is a huge honour.
“I would like to think we can give each other the hardest of times for many years to come.
“When I came on Tour he was already one of the greats of all time. He is still getting better and so is every other player around us. You can see how consistent Tarek Momen has been over the past couple of years, and Karim on a good day, and Marwan is on the rise again. Paul Coll is getting better day by day and with Diego Elias, Simon Rosner, Mohamed Abouelghar and Fares Dessouky you can see it is getting tougher.”
The sellout crowd at the East Wintergarden thoroughly enjoyed the feast of squash served up by the finalists and gasped at the incredible retrieving before cheering the array of stunning shots that were required to finish the rallies.
Farag certainly enjoyed the experience and added: “Inside the court it was both tough and enjoyable. Tactically, you always had to have an open mind to change things and you needed to be mentally strong because it was inevitable that you would get tired and you would have to push through that.
“I was not super tired but got tired at certain points. You had to stay on your toes all the time because Mohamed can sneak a winner out of nowhere and I have to learn these things and learn how to deal with them. Maybe I need to be more attacking in these situations.
“We played with a great spirit and whenever I hit a good shot Mohamed would always clap his racket or say ‘Good shot’. We never gave each other a hard time, or the referee, and that is how the fan like to watch the game. There were hardly any reviews and we did our sport proud.
“I know I lost but I don’t want to be the type of guy who is results-orientated. We have had a busy schedule with the Egyptian Nationals and the Windy City Open immediately before playing here and I gave my best at all times and can go home very proud.”
When asked if he could sense his opponent was tiring, he responded: “I think I had an advantage physically but Mohamed is so experienced he always would have come back somehow and sneaked some winners.
“He is super talented when it comes to that. You never know what is going to happen.
“That made me nervous and I tried to force things a little to get over the line. Overall I made a few errors but there was nothing drastically wrong. It was just a few errors here and there and that was how Mohamed won. He handled the nerves better than I did.”
Farag was also keeping an eye on the Black Ball women’s tournament where his wife Nour El Tayeb beat Raneem El Sherbini the previous evening and faced world champion Nour El Sherbini minutes before Farag tackled ElShorbagy in the Canary Wharf final.
He added: “That helped me get ready for my match. Nour did unbelievably well to back up what she did yesterday, beating Raneem and playing so well against the world champion Nour El Sherbini. It was an unbelievable match and her never-give-up attitude inspired me to play my best as well.
“She was disappointed to lose but results are not everything in sport. We can both be happy with our weeks and we can enjoy a good meal now when I go back home.
“When I get home I want to make sure everybody in my family is safe and if we are able to we might go away for a few days or maybe a week. But you never know if things are going to escalate. We will take it day by day and hope we get life back to normal as soon as we can.”
Pictures by PATRICK LAUSON (www.patricklausonphotography.co.uk)