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Willstrop pays tribute to ‘The Maestro’

Amr Shabana beat James Willstrop in the Tournament of Champions semi-final in New York
Amr Shabana beat James Willstrop in the Tournament of Champions semi-final in New York

Willstrop: Past and present players view Shabana as an inspiration
By JAMES WILLSTROP – Article first published on the Yorkshire Evening Post website (28/01/14) 

Racket sports require a very particular set of skills and Shabana is one of the subtlest and most individual racket players the game of squash has ever seen.

I would be pressed to put many ahead of him in terms of ability and watchability, in all racket sports throughout history. Not something to say lightly, especially as a fellow player.

He is the man on the PSA World Tour who the other players would cite, if asked now, as a prime influence and inspiration. The comments from them speak for themselves.

He is 34 now so for many of the Tour’s younger members he will have been a hero, and his age means he has seniority.

But even players of his own generation will, in their post match quotes against him, mention how much they have looked up to him in the past, and how good a squash player he continues to be.

It is unusual for a figure to have such blanket admiration from peers or colleagues in the way he does. Because of the manner he goes about his work, none of his contemporaries hesitate to shower the man they call ‘The Maestro’ with such praise.

Not only does he bedazzle with dexterous brilliance, but he is fair on court. Why is he so good?

His racket work is in a league of its own. He does play incredible shots from unthinkable angles as Ramy Ashour does, and this is perhaps the obvious entertaining aspect of his play for the general squash public.

For me though it’s the purity of his technique, clean ball striking and adroit rally building that is even more impressive. At times he displays pure mastery of the laws of geometry, and has an enviable knack of creating space from a position of deadlock, leaving opponents stranded in one area of the court.

There is a rare aesthetic element to what he does, when he makes world level sport look quite easy. Roger Federer definitely has this ability, and one of the great Pakistani squash players, Jansher Khan was all relaxation, rhythm and artistic style. Rally construction becomes an art form to such superstars.

Squash is one of the fastest games on earth, and at the top level you feel like you are being pulled from pillar to post. Mostly it shows in players’ movement or expressions, but Amr Shabana even seems able to make ‘making it look easy’ look easy.

And what’s more: he has achieved big things in the game playing this way, with four world titles to his name and lengthy spells at world number one. After last weekend he added another Tournament of Champions title (pictured right) to his collection.

Seeded seven, he beat Nick Matthew 3-2 in the quarters, myself in the semi-finals and then Gregory Gaultier in the final, a tournament win few saw coming.

Whilst his age is certainly no issue for him or the players having to deal with him, it is a big story for many in the public and media who have been expecting his power on the world stage to waver.

At least for now, any such thoughts of his regression have been decidedly squashed.

People keep saying things like ‘Shabana is back’ well, yes, it’s very dramatic and makes a good headline, but really, for those who know, he never went away.

Source: Yorkshire Evening Post; Picture by Steve Line (SquashPics) – courtesy of the Tournament of Champions website

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