Shabana claims second World Open
Amr Shabana of Egypt emerged from a field full of former champions and young title pretenders in Hong Kong to become the first player since the days of the mighty Khans to take a second men's world title.
A 26-year-old left-hander from Cairo who unexpectedly took the 2003 title beating Thierry Lincou in the final in Lahore, Shabana this time defeated Australia's David Palmer 11-6, 11-7, 11-8, in a 40-minute final on a battered Perspex showcourt on the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, after surviving Simon Parke and Olli Touminen on the plaster courts of the Hong Kong Squash Centre, destroying Lee Beachill on a uniquely three glass sided club center court, and executing Peter Nicol in the harborside showcourt semifinals.
Jonathon Power, the only one of four former World Open Champions in the field to fall short of the semifinals, said early in the championship that his flexibility and invention might make him the man to exploit a contest that, in tennis terms, was played first on concrete, then on clay and finally on grass. But James Willstrop put paid to that theory beating Power masterfully 11-6, (7-11), 11-6, 11-6 in a 45 minute quarterfinal.
The Canadian 1998 champion took Malaysia's Ong Beng Hee out of the first round well enough, but then he fell into the Stewart Boswell syndrome that has caused so many problems for so many players over the past year.
As he has repeatedly done in major 2005 tournaments, the lanky Australian former World No. 4 came out of the qualifiers at the expense of Kashif Shuja and Alister Walker, ruined Graham Ryding's 14th seeding in the first round and kept Power fighting at full stretch for 52 minutes before letting him through 11-8, (5-11), 11-5, 11-9—not the ideal preparation a 31-year-old requires for a quarterfinal against the new World No 2.
Willstrop, promoted spectacularly that week after winning the Qatar Classic days earlier, sandwiched his quarterfinal win over Power between a magnificent 71-minute fight-back second round (7-11), (9-11), 11-4, 11-8, 11-6 win over Nick Matthew and a fantastically fast-paced 44 minute 11-9, 11-10(3-1), 11-10(2-0) semifinal loss to Palmer in which vengeance for the Qatar final seemed a major motivator and from which the Antwerp based Australian emerged just sufficiently depleted to lose another final.
Banned from the subsequent WSF World Team Championship for behavior in India earlier in the year, Palmer had set out on this PSA tour through Qatar, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia to collect all three titles to illustrate just what would be missing from the team event in Islamabad. He certainly showed in Qatar and Hong Kong that he can beat anyone in the game right now; he just cannot go on beating them round after round all the way to the titles.
Palmer looked good coming through the early rounds against Laurens Jan Anjema and Mohd Azlan Iskander, and he was little short of magnificent turning a 73-minute assault from his oldest rival, British Open Champion Anthony Ricketts, into a classic all-Australian testosterone-charged 11-9, (2-11), 11-9, (7-11), 11-8 victory. But that effort, combined with the long-limbed fast-footed squash-filled battle in which he defeated Willstrop by a mere six points in the semis, and four of those in free-running tiebreaks, left him with little to counter the exuberant brilliance of Shabana.
The Egyptian admitted that he had to battle his way through the early rounds. “I had a wrist injury two weeks before the event that I thought would stop me from playing in Hong Kong at all,” he explained. “Then I always have trouble on the Hong Kong plaster courts which play so hot and fast.
“But once I got onto the transparent courts I could feel my game coming together. I played really well to beat Lee Beachill in just half-an-hour on the club centre court and then I was completely concentrated against Nicol to get my first win over him. In the end, once I got to the court, the final was easier by comparison.”
Shabana confided that he had woken up with dragonflies in his stomach on the morning of finals day. “They were too big to be just butterflies. It took me all day to contain them. I prayed and prayed, then I prayed and prayed some more. By the time I got to the court I was amazingly calm. I knew what I had to do, and I put it straight into action. The first thing I did when I hit the winning shot was fall to my knees to thank my God for that calm.
“When I won my first title in Pakistan it was sort of a surprise. The greatest effect was that it made me realize what was possible. This time it feels important. I have a new wife and I have a new coaching setup with Ahmed Tahir, and I am the first man after Jahangir and Jansher to win a second World Open title.”
At the start of the match Palmer was worried about the ink from Shabana's racquet stencil transferring to the white ball. He identified a problem which had played a large part in Peter Nicol's relative failure against Shabana in the semifinals. Some of the audience thought he should have asked for a change of racquet from his opponent, but the best the referee, Jack Allen of Ireland, could offer without such a request was thorough cleaning of the ball at the end of each game.
Allen was prepared to offer Shabana some protection from Palmer's habit of blocking his drop shots to both top corners with a stream of let calls and the odd judicious penalty stroke, but he allowed a good deal of early pushing to go unremarked and perhaps the calmness of the sometimes volatile Egyptian showed the maturity that is developing from his new personal environment.
The key to the victory was in speed of movement and commitment to attack. Shabana needed less than a quarter hour to dominate each game. He struck winning shots from every angle and moved out of compromising positions with enough acceleration to turn potential strokes into mere lets.
Palmer at his best might have been a match for the quicksilver Egyptian but, slightly jaded and perhaps toned down by his own self-knowledge of that fact, he was always trying to catch up from the early 5-1 Shabana lead to the final wrong-footing crosscourt forehand drop shot across the face of the frontwall.
In the previous round Shabana had similarly cut his way past Peter Nicol 11-8, 11-2, 11-6 in 35 minutes of sharp eyed aggression that left the 32-year-old looking pale and out of touch.
Nicol complained after the beating that the ball was almost impossible to see and that, as a consequence, he could anticipate neither the depth of his opponent's shots nor their trajectory. Shabana agreed that the ball was dark and hard to see on the cross-court shots. “But I was determined never to take my eye off the ball,” he said. “I knew I had never beaten Peter Nicol and that it was now or never, so I made sure I followed that ball everywhere.”
The upshot was the most intense sustained Shabana attack many could remember. After a period of testing rallies at the start of the opening game, a no-let call giving Nicol 6-4 seemed to throw the Shabana switch. Over the next nine rallies he attacked the ball with such venom that on game ball Nicol, usually the calmest and most thoughtful of finishers, hit a backhand return of service straight into the tin and marched off court in something of a fury.
It didn't get better for him. Shabana started the second game with a backhand volley into the top right hand nick, allowed Nicol just two services and finished with a forehand crosscourt drop shot that completely wrong-footed his opponent.
Just as he had with Lee Beachill in the quarterfinals, Shabana came out for the third even more determined to play the game his way. Nicol tried to bring the pace down, took a 3-0 lead thanks largely to a couple of Egyptian errors, then struggled to hold service for more than a single rally as Shabana forged back to 5-5 on a nicked backhand return of service, 6-6 on a mishit forehand retrieval from the deep left corner, then took the match in one more hand as Nicol contributed three more errors under the unrelenting pressure.
It was a shellacking, really. The 1999 World Open Champion was blown off court by the 2003 edition. Reclaiming the World Open title had been Nicol's primary target for the season and it had come sharply into focus when he defeated the defending 2004 champion, Thierry Lincou of France, (8-11), 11-3, 11-5, 11-9 in a 52-minute quarterfinal.
Events conspired to assist Nicol's win, with Lincou tired from a fierce battle against his young compatriot, Gregory Gaultier, while he eased through against Pakistan's Shahid Zaman. Yet it was the defending champion who struck the most attacking mode, driving Nicol out of the first game and then counter-attacking with courage and élan in the fourth.
“He played on this court yesterday while I was still on the plaster courts,” Nicol, explained. “It took me a while to adjust, but my long training towards this paid off. I was moving well into the second, able to lift the ball a little and spread the play to allow me the initiative through the second and third games. To Thierry's credit I had to hang on a bit in the fourth, but I managed it well enough.”
That fourth game survival was almost certainly influenced by Gaultier, who went after his senior compatriot with complete venom in the second round; eating up the opening game in just five hands thanks in part to the tetchy inaccuracy of Lincou's short game.
The defending champion upped the workrate in the second and led 4-3 in the third. But Gaultier's speed and invention, not to mention the sheer penetration of some of his driving, particularly on the forehand, brought him to 9-4 and 11-8 in a couple of sustained bursts.
An unseasoned observer might have given the match to Gaultier at that point, but the fourth game was a classic example of the promising youngster's ability to almost wilfully remove his eye from the ball at vital moments. His conversations with the stern referee, Jack Allen, over the correct nature of some calls appeared to take on more significance than actually winning the match. Where a more experienced player might have seen the need to keep the pressure firmly applied to a weakened opponent, Gaultier contrived to bring Lincou back into the match thanks to a single hand of seven easy points up to 10-2 and then chucked in the towel until the defending champion was leading 5-0 in the fifth game.
Equally characteristic, however, was the manner in which Gaultier then awoke once more and fought with both courage and brilliance to 6-8, 7-9 and 8-10 before finally hitting the tin one last time.
Lincou could scarcely raise his racquet in triumph at the end. He limply accepted a Gallic embrace from his opponent and turned droopingly toward the court door with a face of grey hue and total exhaustion. It was probably here in such intense domestic rivalry that World Open defense of the World No. 1 actually foundered.