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Friday, December 9, 2022

Geoff Hunt Exclusive: US Open will be exciting and wide open with so many potential winners

RJ Mitchell
RJ Mitchellhttp://www.spitfiremediascotland.co.uk
RJ MITCHELL has been writing about squash for 24 years and has played the sport all his adult life. Former captain of the West of Scotland county team, he became a professional journalist and has written for the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, the Glasgow Evening Times, The Herald and The Scotsman. Mitchell has also become a regular contributor for the PSA World Tour website. He is also the author of the DS Thoroughgood crime fiction series based on his career as a Glasgow cop between 1989 and 2001.

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‘Covid allowed players to take stock and they have all come back looking much stronger’
By RJ MITCHELL (Squash Mad Correspondent)

GEOFF HUNT believes that this year’s US Open will be the most open in the tournament’s 37-year history.

It is one of the great Australian’s deepest regrets that back in his 1970s and early 80s pomp there was no US Open to contest, although in 1977 Hunt was runner-up in its precursor, the North American Hardball Championships, to the legendary Sharif Khan.

But now Hunt, the game’s first men’s professional world champion when he beat Mohibullah Khan over five torrid games in London in 1976, reckons that any attempt to make a prediction on who will be crowned king of squash in ‘the land of the free’ would be an exercise in futility.

This is very much based on Hunt’s interpretation of how the early season has developed combined with the underwhelming start to the campaign made by defending champion Mostafa Asal, who as a result has even more motivation to defend his title at the Arlen Specter Center.

Thus the immortal Antipodean may well have a point and the four-time world champion said: “For me it is looking like an exciting US Open to be honest as there are so many players who are in form right now. It really is as open as I can remember it.

“In my view we had COVID, which curtailed everyone’s activities and it has allowed them to reassess and take stock of themselves. They could see where they are and look at their training and as a consequence of that they have all come back stronger.

“Guys like Mohamed (El Shorbagy), who are a later stage in their career, seem to have got their appetite back and are enjoying a new lease of life and the standard in my opinion has gone up as a result.

“You look at all the different coaches that are now being used by the players and it is just a very interesting time and full of interesting sub-plots.

“So it is exceptionally open and very good to see and all that bodes well for the US Open this week ahead.”

Mostafa Asal became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open in 2021

Assessing the male contenders, Hunt started with the defending champion Mostafa Asal, who has fallen at the semi-final stage in both the Qatar Classic and Egyptian Open to Mohamed El Shorbagy and Ali Farag respectively so far this term.

As a result Hunt says this is a big week for the 21-year-old: “Obviously Mostafa is the defending champion and he will have the confidence of having played at the Arlen Specter Centre before and won there and that is a big plus for him.

“He hasn’t won anything big for a while and so far this season, and now he has the chance to fix that by defending his title this week, so Asal is definitely a contender.”

Hunt continued: “I am a big fan of Ali Farag and am on record as saying how much I like Ali as a player. He was impressive in winning the Egyptian Open and Ali knows that he is probably at his peak and has that confidence of winning a major title recently.

“Obviously Paul (Coll) has taken his No.1 ranking and Ali will be keen to get it back so that will be a big driver for him as well.

“In terms of Paul, to say the least he is still a very hard player to beat. It was a bit of a surprise that Abdulla (Mohd Al Tamimi) beat him (in Qatar) but he will have reflected on that and will have moved on.

Paul Coll is back at number one and will have learnt from his shock defeat to Abdulla Al Tamimi in Qatar

“Paul has been hugely consistent over the last few years and he is back up at No.1, so he will definitely want a major title and one he has not won before to go with that and he will go to Philadelphia rightly believing he can win the US Open.

“You know that Paul will have prepared meticulously and that he will be determined and hard to beat. And there is no way anyone should write him off because he hasn’t won a title for a while.”

Turning his attention to the resurgent ElShorbagy brothers Hunt said: “I was a bit surprised when Mohamed hooked up with Greg Gaultier to be honest as I knew that Mohamed worked with Rodney (Martin) for a while and my personal view is I think very highly of Rodney and that if he had pursued that long term it would have been very beneficial for Mohamed.

“I don’t think he explored that to its nth degree but he has decided to go to Gaultier and that is very interesting. Sometimes you need a different stimulation and it has worked for him and now Mohamed has won two of the last three tournaments he has played.

“There is no doubt that Qatar was a very good win for him and I think he would have taken a lot of confidence from that and he has kicked on again at the Oracle NetSuite, so it looks like his partnership with Gaultier has worked well for him.

“Regarding Marwan (now coached by Rod Martin) I’d expect Rodney to have a positive impact on Marwan and in fact that is clearly obviously the case. Marwan has always had a bit of talent but perhaps has been a bit disillusioned and maybe hasn’t put in the hard yards he needed to as a result.

Marwan ElShorbagy has reached two finals this season, in Nantes and San Francisco

“But I think under Rodney he has rekindled that and he is making finals again. He is knocking on the door once more and he will be dangerous in Philadelphia.”

Reflecting on his own fortunes in the USA, Hunt was sanguine about the fact there was no US Open to compete for in his 1970s heyday.

The eight-time British Open champion said: “As far as squash went there were no tournaments in the US for squash back in my day so it is nice to see the game flourishing and the US Open being held at a venue like the Arlen Specter Centre.

“Plus, with a lot more tournaments to play, it is like a mini circuit in the US revolving around the US Open and that is proof of how far the game has come and grown over there, which is all hugely positive.

“For me, well I went to New York in ’64 as a young boy with the Australian team to play in a hardball tournament and I enjoyed that.

Sharif Khan, son of Hashim, is pictured with a framed photograph of one of his battles with Geoff Hunt

“I also played the North American Open for hardball on one occasion and lost to Sharif (Khan) in the final. I also won the Philadelphia Open and again that was hardball, which was 30% bigger than the ball used now. So it was much harder and as a result moved quicker.”

Hardball later gave way to softball, which has grown in the college sport landscape and has led to major professional events including the US Open, the Tournament of Champions, the Windy City Open, club-based events in Houston, Detroit and Cleveland, and the Oracle NetSuite Open, which concluded this week with a victory on home soil in the women’s event for American No.1 Amanda Sobhy.

Making the game more accessible to the public has to be the next major target for US Squash with investors in padel determined to copy the boom in pickleball.

Hot news in America this week came with basketball superstar LeBron James investing in a professional pickleball team.

It would be nice to see some similar celebrity endorsements for squash’s hugely talented athletes who will be putting their bodies on the line over the next week at the Arlen Specter Center.

Join the debate.

Next week RJ Mitchell looks at the early-season indicators in the women’s game. Feel free to join the debate by posting your thoughts on the squash scene in the Comments section below.

Squash Mad is the home of intelligent debate. Please tell your friends.

Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour 


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