The season-opening Paris Squash Open gave us two predictable sets of finalists, so as we enter the Qatar Q-Terminals Classic next week and get into the real meat of the new campaign, I’m making a few bold predictions about who is worth keeping an eye on in 2023/24.
- Team USA
The level of squash in the States has been getting higher and higher for several years thanks to growing infrastructure, top coaches and excellent facilities like the Arlen Specter Center in Philadelphia and training bases in Florida.
So far, that has manifested itself most in the women’s game, where four girls are in the top 20. Amanda Sobhy is the trailblazer and she will want to push into the top four this season. Her sister Sabrina has clearly been working very hard over the summer and the two Olivias [Fiechter and Clyne] will always be there or thereabouts. They’ll believe that they can challenge Egypt in the years to come.
What’s most interesting now is the men’s side. Tim Brownell (WR 48 – main picture) is a quirky player, but not to be underestimated. He’s pulled off a few scalps, including beating Patrick Rooney in Paris last week and winning against Sebastian Bonmalais at the British Open. Andrew Douglas, Spencer Lovejoy and Sharjahan Khan are also going to be a force to be reckoned with.
The American junior scene is now swelling in numbers. You used to get young American players coming to England to be exposed to competitive squash; now they’ve got it on their own doorstep.
A lot of players are going to university now because the college system can breed them as professional players. Ali Farag, Victor Crouin, Amanda Sobhy and Gina Kennedy all came through the college system. They’ve used it as a platform. That route from grassroots to greatness can now have US colleges as part of the journey. That would not have been the case even 10 years ago.
2. England’s young guns
We’ve had a bit of a gap in terms of challengers for major titles since myself and the so-called golden generation all retired. In fact, we’re all now in our 40s! I feel like this next generation is definitely stepping up – Gina, Jasmine Hutton (above), Lucy Turmel, Lucy Beecroft and younger ones like Katie Maliff, Saran Nghiem, Torie Malik and Asia Harris.
These younger English players are now learning so much from Mohamed ElShorbagy. He has been an inspiration for them – much like when Peter Nicol was for me when he turned English when I was 19 or 20. It showed me there was another level to reach in terms of attention to detail, preparation and being professional.
The likes of Patrick Rooney, Nick Wall, Curtis Malik and Charlie Lee are benefiting from being around him too. They all grew up watching him so what he says to them carries so much weight. Me and David Campion will do the squad training plan, but when Mohamed makes a point you can see they are so attentive! It’s been fascinating. He’s gone out of his way to forge relationships, create trust and set an amazing example.
3. Ginger Ninjas
Simon Herbert (WR 66, 22-year-old from Leicester) and Finnlay Withington (WR 100, 19 from Bury) are two players I’ve been impressed by. Both play a fearless, attacking, modern style of game.
I saw Simon play Joel Makin in the Cleethorpes Invitational a few months ago and he was the only one who got a game off him. I was impressed by the way he had no respect for reputations. Both Simon and Finn need to develop maturity to play the right shot at the right time, but neither are respecters of reputations.
Katie Maliff is another ginger ninja who’s shown she can compete with the top 20, but her injury record is something Rob Owen will be keeping an eye on and I’m sure England Squash are supporting her with.
4. Japanese samurais
I didn’t realise how good Satomi Watanabe was until I saw her in person. She played in the National Club Championships at Hallamshire and had the purest backhand I’ve seen in a long time. Although she had an early loss in Paris, I expect her to get used to the expectation levels of being in the top 20 pretty quickly.
Ryunosuke Tsukue (WR 59) is a Dunlop player. He came to Hallamshire 18 months ago and I’d never heard of him, but we played and he ran me ragged at times. I had to dig deep to beat him 3-2! I thought, ‘Wow! He could be good.’ He’s got a lot of skill, creativity and flair. He reminds me of the Qatari, Abdulla Al-Tamimi, in that sometimes you wish he’d just play a straight length! He’s almost got too many options for his own good, but is very exciting to watch.
5. The golden oldies
I’m fascinated by the elder statesmen who are coming towards their twilight, such as Miguel Rodriguez, Tarek Momen, Omar Mosaad, Joelle King and Sarah Jane Perry.
I remember what it was like to manage my body, my motivation and almost have to re-invent myself at that stage of my career, when you’ve been doing it for 20 years.
You can’t underestimate how challenging it is to keep that desire and hunger, day in, day out. You’ve been doing it such a long time and you need to find ways to keep it fresh and exciting – by bringing things like yoga and extra rest time into your programme. You almost need to unlearn everything you know, because things change in terms of how you need to prepare and play.
Someone like Tarek is stubborn in that he’ll always play the same way no matter how old he is. He opens up the court a lot, it’s what he knows and it has made him very successful, but can he play that way any more?
Mohamed talks a lot about how he’s had to change his game because he can’t play the same way he used to. I’m fascinated by that because I’m still doing that now to an extent in Yorkshire League matches. Your body just isn’t capable of playing how your brain wants it to. You need to realign your goals. Maybe you can’t get to world No.1 any more, but you may still be able to win a tournament, so aim to peak for certain events. Bring on 2023/24!
Nick Matthew was speaking to Mike Dale