Friday, December 1, 2023

Sublime Shabana topples Matthew in ToC thriller

Shabana shocks the seedings to oust world number one Nick Matthew in Tournament of Champions quarter final
By MICHAEL CATLING – Squash Mad Senior Reporter

Egyptian maestro Amr Shabana rolled back the years to stun world number one Nick Matthew in a dramatic five game encounter and advance into the semi-finals of the Tournament of Champions in New York. 

In a match that could rival any, if not all, their 27 meetings on the PSA Tour, the crowd at the Grand Central Station were treated to a 91 minute masterclass as Shabana clinched a nail-biting decider to prevail 9-11, 12-10, 11-7, 2-11, 11-9 in 91 minutes. 

Shabana’s wild celebration, which nearly saw the former world number one run up the front wall, was indicative of his boundless energy as the 34-year-old became the first man to topple the England number one outside of a PSA Tour final since the British Open in May.

Victory ends a run of four successive defeats for Shabana against the triple world champion and also avenges his second round defeat at the $115,000 event 12 months ago. 

“That was probably one of the best matches that I have played in a long time,” said Shabana (pictured left).

“Nick is the World champion and the world number one and he’s beaten me in the last four games that we played so I had to play at my very best to beat him. I had a game plan and I stuck to it and thankfully it worked.

“Every time you lose you learn something new and even today I felt he was pushing very hard. He’s probably the best guy out there at the moment but we’re all competitors and you can’t always win and thankfully today it was me who snuck the victory today.”

The Egyptian’s reward is a last four showdown with fourth seed James Willstrop, after the Englishman overcame fellow compatriot Peter Barker in four tight games.

But it was the Cairo ace who will rightfully earn the headlines after once again endearing himself to supporters with a breathtaking array of flicks and tricks.

A miraculous boast from a seemingly irretrievable position early in the fifth game typified his showman antics and was merely a side show in a flawless performance against the reigning World champion.

It was Matthew, though, who raced into an early lead but quickly saw a four point advantage evaporate as Shabana reeled off five successive points to move within two points of taking the opening game. 

However, a broken string while leading 9-8 halted Shabana’s momentum and it was Matthew who capitalised on the brief interlude to earn the first game ball following a deft counter drop. 

Yet despite forging several openings to force a tie-break, Shabana tinned a cross court drop to lose a gruelling 24 minute opening game.

With the seventh seed still smarting over the outcome, Matthew continued in the ascendancy to amass a 6-3 lead in the second. 

A delightful fake from Shabana, which evoked memories of James Willstrop’s ‘double whammy’ shot at the North American Open in 2013, was the catalyst for a shift in momentum as the reigning Motor City Open champion tied the scores at six apiece.

Matthew responded with his own selection of winners and a forehand volley kill handed the 33-year-old another game ball in a carbon copy of the opening game. A fortunate back wall nick, though, forced a tie break before Shabana squeezed two tins from his opponent to equalise. 

A resurgent Shabana continued in a similar vein early in the third game and although Matthew fought back to level the scores at 7-7, an overhead volley drop edged Shabana ahead once again. 

Shabana might have slipped to ninth in the world rankings, but he was displaying intensity befitting someone 10 years his junior and a succession of exquisite winners were greeted with a trademark fist-pump as the Egyptian moved within one game of victory. 

But barely four minutes after the pair had returned to the court, Matthew was soon leaving again with a one-sided fourth game safely in the bag.

In truth, Shabana had offered little resistance but his fitness-saving ploy appeared to work wonders in the decider as Matthew struggled to find further cracks in the Egyptians armoury.

But Matthew has established a reputation for his superhuman fitness and dug deep to turnaround a 5-3 deficit to lead 7-5. 

Once again, though, Shabana stormed back and after benefitting from a stroke decision to tie the scores at seven apiece, he capitalised on his opponents inaccuracy before burying a backhand volley drop winner to accrue three match balls. 

Matthew nervelessly saved the first and second but an uncharacteristic forehand error left Shabana jumping for joy and ended the Englishman’s quest for a second Tournament of Champions title.

Willstrop Barker

Shabana will now face Willstrop for a place in Friday’s final, after the world number five came through a tough four game battle against Barker to prevail 11-7, 5-11, 12-10, 11-5 in 67 minutes.

Willstrop, who had lost only once in 20 previous meetings between the English pair heading into their last eight encounter, immediately pounced on Barker’s looseness early on and deservedly took the opening game in just over 10 minutes. 

But despite Willstrop’s early dominance, roles were soon reversed in the second game as Barker increased the intensity to leave his opponent scurrying from side-to-side.

By this point, Barker was playing like a man possessed and with the games now tied at one-apiece, Barker capitalised on two stroke decisions to level the scores at 9-9 in a crucial third game. 

Willstrop responded once again and although he squandered a game ball with a tinned drop, the 30-year-old retained his composure to reclaim his one game advantage.

It was a shame, then, that Barker’s challenge faded thereafter as the left-hander, who has been sidelined for the past two months due to a calf injury, began wincing in pain midway through the fourth game.

Sensing Barker’s struggles, Willstrop relentlessly turned the screw and progressed through to his fifth successive semi-final at the Tournament of Champions.

“It’s not been my best week of squash,” said Willstrop (pictured right) in his post match interview. “But I improved again a little bit today.

“Pete gave me a lot to think about but I’m through to a semi-final and I’m old enough now to know that you can turn things around and get through the rusty patches. I’m not playing badly but I haven’t set the world on fire.

“Every player would say that Shabana is at the top of their list. His ball striking and natural purity is great and I enjoyed watching him play Nick. It was along game but he’s used to it and he’s strong so I don’t think that will have a big impact.

“It excites me to be in the semi and I’m going to enjoy that for 48 hours. I like playing here and I like playing Shabs so I’m looking forward to it.”

Top seed Gregory Gaultier will attempt to book his place in the last four against Karim Darwish’s conqueror Simon Rosner on Wednesday evening, while Mohamed Elshorbagy meets Daryl Selby in a repeat of the Qatar Classic quarter final in November.


Pictures by Steve Line (SquashPics) – courtesy of the Tournament of Champions website

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