Why the PSA need to prevent non-event finals and create equal draw schedules
By MATTHEW LOMBARDI – Squash Mad guest columnist
For fans of the PSA Tour, two of the most memorable moments of the 2013 season involved the agony of Greg Gaultier.
Last January in the final of the Tournament of Champions against Ramy Ashour he was on the losing end of the “rock ‘n’ roll rally” – which, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, is probably the most viewed point in the history of squash.
In the context of the match, it marked the end of the road for Greg. He had won the first two games and lost a tight third 10-12, but following that highlight-reel rally early in the fourth, he would win only two more points for the rest of the night. He was out of gas.
Flash forward to November’s World Championship final, where Gaultier battled Nick Matthew through four intense games lasting over 100 minutes, then collapsed in the fifth, losing 11-2.
Once again, Greg’s tank was empty. It was brutal, even if you were rooting for Matthew, to watch Gaultier struggle through that final game, pushing his unwilling body on to the inevitable conclusion – another World Open final loss.
A Built-in Disadvantage
How do you explain a supremely fit athlete like Gaultier succumbing to exhaustion in two of the biggest matches of the year? There’s lots of room for speculation, but I think an under-appreciated factor was the luck of the draw.
Both tournaments used a match schedule that spread the quarter-finals over two days: the top half of the draw played first, before the two winners enjoyed a rest day while the bottom half played.
That meant when the finals rolled around, the player from the top half (Ashour and Matthew in these two instances) were playing his second match in two days, preceded by a day of rest, while the unlucky player from the bottom half (Gaultier) had to play three days in a row.
For fans and tournament promoters, this type of schedule makes sense. By the quarter-finals the cream has risen to the top. There’s every reason to expect the quarters will produce four long, contentious, high-quality matches – a good two nights worth of entertainment.
I’m not saying Gaultier would have won the ToC or the World Open if he’d gone into those finals with the same amount of rest as his opponent, but I do believe he would have had a fighting chance of finishing with a bang instead of a whimper.
But that same logic is precisely what makes such draws unfair to the players and ultimately bad for the pro game. While top-ranked players often cruise through the earlier rounds, strategically conserving energy along the way, by the quarters they know they have to give an all-out effort if they expect to continue advancing.
For the finalist from the draw’s bottom half, having to play three of these full-throttle matches in a row is a distinct disadvantage.
A look at some additional events bears this out. In 2013 there were two other tournaments with draws scheduled the same way, the NetSuite Open and the U.S. Open.
In both cases the finalist from the top half won. And for the past eight years that I’ve been attending the ToC the draw has always been structured this way.
In seven out of those eight years the winner has come from the top half. So with the 2014 edition a week away, now’s the time to call your bookie. Put your money on Nick Matthew (pictured left), who’s been inserted in the slot vacated by Ramy Ashour at the top of the draw.
There are obviously other factors that help to explain these results, including the fact that the number-one seed is placed in the top half.
(In the case of the ToC, though, four of those seven top-half winners mentioned above weren’t number-one seeds.) The point is that with this sort of draw there’s unfairness built into the system.
I’m not saying Gaultier would have won the ToC or the World Open if he’d gone into those finals with the same amount of rest as his opponent, but I do believe he would have had a fighting chance of finishing with a bang instead of a whimper. That would have been a boon for the players, fans, and promoters alike.
A More Fair Kind of Unfairness
So how do you create a more level playing field? Other major tournaments, including the Qatar Classic and the British and Hong Kong opens, play all four quarterfinals on the same day.
That method has disadvantages the split quarters were created to overcome: you have more high-quality matches than you can fit into one evening, and with fewer rest days for everyone involved the tournament becomes a war of attrition, with both finalists unlikely to be at their best after three or four consecutive days of play.
A partial solution – my truly modest proposal – is to continue having the quarterfinals on two days, but to split them up differently. Instead of having the top half of the draw play on day one and the bottom half on day two, have the top and bottom quarters of the draw (the ones containing the one and two seeds) play on the first day and the middle two quarters (containing the three and four seeds) play on the second.
This would be an improvement for two reasons. First, it would give the advantage to the players who have earned it: the top two seeds, if they win, would be the ones getting the day of rest between the quarterfinals and the semis.
Second, it would create at least the possibility of the two finalists going into their match with comparable rest. If the top two seeds reached the final, they’d both have had the day off between quarters and semis – providing the best possible circumstances for high-quality play.
If the tournament didn’t go according to seed, there would still be a fifty-fifty chance of the finalists entering the match with equal rest.
With the schedule currently used by the ToC and the World Open, there’s no chance of that happening. The finalist from the top half always has an advantage built into the draw.
I realise this is a wonky issue, but these kinds of details can make a difference in both the quality and the outcome of matches. Watching Gaultier struggle through that fifth game of the World Open was painful, especially because I kept thinking to myself, “It didn’t have to end this way.”
The PSA players are a passionate, dedicated group. They deserve for their tournaments to be as fair as possible.
Matt Lombardi is a freelance writer and squash enthusiast based in Seattle. This will be his third year serving as the blogger for the Tournament of Champions website. Look out for his daily updates, including intrepid predictions, starting Thursday, January 16.
What’s On My Mind is a column by rotating authors published by dailysquashreport.com. Contact: [email protected]
Pictures courtesy of Canary Wharf Squash Classic; Michael Catling; Steve Cubbins (SquashSite)