Australians in Control in Nottingham's British Open
David Palmer and Rachael Grinham have successfully reinforced their Australian stranglehold on the Harris British Open Squash Championships, respectively defeating Egypt's Amr Shabana and the USA-based Natalie Grainger in two fascinating finals at the Albert Hall in Nottingham.
Palmer's 89 minute (10-11 (4-6)), 7, 11-10 (3-1), 7 win over the World Open Champion was a triumph for powerful hard-running squash that eventually left his speedy and gifted left-handed opponent exhausted, while Grinham's 39-minute (3), 5, 0, 3 victory was reward for carefully crafted tactics that completely undermined the strong rallying style with which the US Open Champion had dominated the bottom half of the draw.
It was a third win for Palmer, who previously defeated Chris Walker in the 2001 final and Peter Nicol in the 2003 final, and it was Palmer's first tournament win under the new PSA 11 point scoring that came into play at the start of this season. Grinham's win was her second, having beaten Cassie Jackman in last year's final. But Grinham's victory became unique when she defeated Palmer in a special five-hand poker challenge after the finals in which she doubled her $6,000 prize money, thanks to the sponsorship of PartyPoker.com, and became the first woman in history to leave the British Open Championship with a bigger winner's purse than the men's champion.
To have won the great bluffing card game was a fitting conclusion for the Cairo based 27-year-old Queenslander who had similarly thought her way through to victory on the court. Grainger, who had recently returned to action after eight months out of the game with injuries and illness, arrived in Nottingham with the Atlanta Masters and the US Open title to her credit, stormed through the lower half of the field with increasing rhythm and confidence. She had virtually brushed aside the second-seeded Cassie Jackman in the semifinals. Grinham, on the other hand, almost stumbled into the final, giving a game and a half to Vicky Botwright in the second round, fighting her way out of a first-game tiebreak against Nicol David, and grinding her way past Vanessa Atkinson after standing matchballs down in the third game of their semifinal.
Atkinson, third seeded and playing fast-moving, long, shot-making squash of a dazzlingly high standard, scooped up the first two games for just eight points, then advanced to match ball at 8-7 in the third only to fumble the opportunity at the very point of success. She had the chance to finish things off with a soft ball in the top right corner that was just begging for a cut shot to the nick, but she chose instead to play the ball safely back into the forehand court where Grinham was just standing ready to drive it away. The was another match ball at 9-8 and the ball was again sitting obligingly ready for a drop shot in the same corner, but back into play it went as the tall, well skilled Dutch champion spurned the aggressive option once again.
“I wasn't about to give up just because she was at match point,” said Grinham later. “This was the British Open and I was defending the title. She gave me an opening so I went for it. Really I didn't win. Vanessa lost it.”
With Australian confidence rising in direct proportion to the panic setting in on the Dutch side, Grinham displayed the sort of discipline and understanding that suggests she is not World No1 by accident and is unlikely to be shifted from the rank easily. She clawed her way painstakingly, point by point, to 9-6 in the fourth and then cut Atkinson out of the fifth game in a single hand from 2-2 to claim her allotted place in the 2004 final (7), (1), 10-9, 6, 2 in 67 minutes.
“I can't remember a harder or better fightback I have managed from two games down,” said the top seed at the end. “I must be learning to play this game at last.”
When Grainger flowed into a seven-minute 9-3 capture of the first game of the final, it looked as though the former South African Champion might go straight on to pick up a first British Open title, but by that time the little defending champion had, almost subconsciously, it seemed, worked out how to deal with the situation.
Lifting the ball high around the court and removing from the rallies the weight and speed of delivery on which Grainger normally feeds, Grinham simply took control of the court. For spectators who enjoy the sights and sounds of power squash, this must have been anathema, but for those who could appreciate the understanding involved and the sheer technical demand of directing the ball with paceless precision throughout the next three games, often hitting deadnicks in the back court with high-arcing lobs, it was absorbing.
“I was hung out to dry,” Grainger admitted later.
“In a way I love playing Natalie,” the renewed champion confessed. “She plays such proper squash that, even when you are guessing what she might do next, you are nearly always right because she does the right thing.”
Amr Shabana didn't do much wrong in the 89-minute men's final either. He was still hitting sublime backhand dropshots across the face of the front wall and crisp overhead forehand kills into the nick a point or two away from defeat. But it was the 34-minute opening game that essentially decided the outcome.
Shabana was the first Egyptian in the final since Gamal Awad fought Jahangir Khan at Derby back in 1983. He was hoping to become the first Egyptian winner of the game's greatest title since Abu Taleb in 1966. That he failed did not diminish his contribution to a great final or the intimation that, if he can maintain the serious and disciplined approach he found for Nottingham, we may have one of the great Egyptian racquet masters back at the top of the game for a few years.
Palmer is a big man; a giant by Shabana's frustrated account after constantly trying to get past him into the corners of the court. His bulk fills spaces an opponent might use to get past him going forward or to escape from front court shots of their own. When he starts moving in a chosen direction it takes a player with a good deal more body weight than Shabana to stop him.
Shabana took his first dive around the knees of the big Australian at 8-6. He took a racquet in the mouth as he advanced into the end of Palmer's follow-through at 10-9, only to see the scores leveled as the referee gave a penalty stroke to Palmer. He was knocked to the floor a 15-14 when he had played a winning backhand dropshot and Palmer advanced from the backcourt straight through him rather than on the line of the ball, only to have a let awarded.
The World Champion still managed to clinch the first game 11-10 (6-4) with a stunning wrong footing forehand boast, but it took only 11 minutes for Palmer to collect the second game, 27 minutes for the third and 12 minutes for the fourth.
The referee sought to contain the increasing physicality of the match with penalty strokes and no let calls, particularly in the top corners, warning both players that he would start to use conduct penalties if they continued to bash each other so remorselessly in the back.
It was just Murphy's Law, perhaps, that saw the only actual conduct warning tagged to Shabana's account, when he was in almost certain terminal decline at 1-5 in the fourth game. By this time Palmer was moving like a well oiled machine. There seemed no ball he could not reach on the hot and bouncy court, no nick he could not fire at, no lob that could pass over his racquet.
“That was tough. British Open finals don't come easy,” said the 28-year-old champion. “That first game was crucial. “I didn't win it, but I extended Shabana and it paid dividends. I was very happy to get off the court 3-1.”
Semifinals day was, if anything, tougher. Palmer's 101-minute win over the top seeded World No. 1, Lee Beachill, 8, (6), (10-11 (0-2)), 4, 9, was a classic, marred at the end by the referee, Wendy Danzey, rather than the players as she stopped Beachill dead by suddenly changing her view of the interference between the two men and giving a brace of devastating penalty strokes to Palmer that raised his counter-attack while Beachill fell back in disbelief.
Beachill, leading 9-6 in the fifth game of a hard and fascinating match, lost service to a clever top-spin backhand drop shot, and then found the remaining two points of his lead officially wiped out. In the forehand court Palmer was unwilling to reach a passing drive down the righthand wall around Beachill's retreating body and was awarded a penalty stroke because 'the ball was loose.' In the backhand court he was given another point when marginally impeded in the preparation of his stroke, approaching a very tight drive down the lefthand wall. Both incidents were echoes of similar situations, which earlier the referee had called often as no-lets.
To his credit, the tall Australian went on to win the semifinal with a backhand drive played dead into the back wall nick and a thunderous forehand crosscourt slam into the lefthand nick. “I had not hit one of those all through the match so I thought I was due one,” he later said.
Beachill, who took over as World No. 1 after beating Palmer in the Bermuda Open final, could only say after the match: “It is hard enough playing David Palmer at the best of times, without having the referee jump in with such inconsistent decisions at such a vital point of the match.”
Shabana beat Thierry Lincou 11-10 (2-0), 11-10 (2-0), 7 in 59 minutes in the other semifinal, blending lightening speed with racquet brilliance and genuine humor in a way that made the enthralled audience at The Albert Hall in Nottingham realize they were in the presence of another master of the old Egyptian school.