Men's World Open
Palmer's Perfect Riposte
Australia's 26-year-old David Palmer found the finest possible response to being voted out of the PSA President's role in his adopted home town of Antwerp, in Belgium, early in December. Six days later he fought his way back from two games and match points down to Scotland's John White to win a 102-minute Men's World Open Championship Final 13-15, 12-15, 15-6, 15-14, 15-11.
It was a performance that restored the credibility of a title that had been left redundant for three years, reclaimed the professional position of a great player who had seemed diminished in an organizational role, and reestablished Australia as the dominant nation in squash with all four senior world titles firmly in their grasp.
“I had been taking quite a lot of flack in the press and the internet chat rooms, and I have to admit the outcome of the PSA AGM was a bit disappointing,” Palmer said after the final. “I think I was motivated by all that to show that what I am actually about is playing squash. People have come to think I am a rough sort of player, I think I proved with this win that I am a bit more than that.”
The new World Open Champion had looked in fairly deep trouble after 40 minutes of the final, two games down to the same sort of high powered accuracy and adventure with which White had blasted the defending champion, Peter Nicol of England, from the semifinals on the same cool Perspex court mounted in Antwerp's old stock exchange building. Then, after fighting back through the next two games over about the same period of time, Palmer again faced disaster when White took a 14-13 lead in the fourth game with a nicked forehand dropshot at full stretch in the top righthand corner to stand within a single point of the world title.
“I was trying not to think beyond the next rally at that point,” admitted Palmer. “I hit a pretty good backhand drop to get to game-ball/match-ball at 14-14 and, when John called a one-point tiebreak as I knew he probably would, I concentrated on serving tight in on him so that he could not slam in one of the crosscourt nick returns he likes so much.
“I was already feeling a bit frustrated after leading 10-7 then letting him get back in front. He was trying to hustle me with the pressure call, but it worked more against him. He hit a very uptight forehand low into the tin and I felt I was in control of the match from that point on.”
Last year Palmer led the Australian team to World team Championship success in Melbourne, but he was not prepared to commit himself on whether winning a world title was better in Melbourne or Antwerp. “This is absolutely the pinnacle of my career so far,” he said. “I have been World Number One, British Open Champion and World Team Champion. But World Open Champion is just beyond them all.
If crowd reaction is anything to go by, World Open runner-up is pretty good too. It has to be said that the longest, loudest, deepest and most rollicking ovation at the old stock exchange came for White, the 29-year-old from Alligator Creek in Queensland who has settled in Nottingham, England, and registered through his father's antecedents as a Scotland player, for the most exciting and adventurous assault on a major title since the 1991 days of Rodney Martin.
Much of that crowd affection grew from the manner in which Nicol was unexpectedly dispossessed of the title, beaten 15-9, 15-7, 15-10 in a 42 minute semifinal by White, the man who replaced him as Scottish number one when Nicol transferred to English registration last year.
After 47 minutes of play in the second semifinal Jonathon Power, the second seeded Canadian, was flat on his back outside the showcourt with blood flowing from his left eye from an accidental racquet strike from Palmer, with the score arrested at 15-13 10-10 in Power's favor.
The blow came as Power advanced into Palmer's forehand follow-through in midcourt, sustaining a cut into the top lid of his left eye from the butt of his opponent's racquet. Power left the court for medical attention and an hour later Palmer was declared the second finalist.
Gawain Briars, the PSA Chief Executive, told the SquashNow website that the process was far from straightforward. “The doctor decided that Power was in shock and possibly suffering mild concussion and that any movement of the head could complicate things. He insisted Power should have hospital inspection before playing again.
“That brought two sets of rules into play. Under WSF Rules accidental injuries are allowed unlimited time to recover within the time schedule of the competition, which meant Power could have played the next day before the scheduled Saturday final. But PSA rules state that all matches must be at least 18 hours apart.
“I was prepared to bend the PSA rules a bit for the sake of the players and the tournament, but I had to leave David the option of refusing to play twice on one day, including a World Open Final.”
Power opted to play the following morning. Not too surprisingly Palmer, who was completely free of responsibility for the clash, declined that opportunity. In effect, the Australian decision triggered Power's almost unwilling concession of the semifinal.
Nicol, the 29-year-old Inverurie born lefthander whose career at the top of the professional game has rested largely upon an indestructible capacity to absorb punishment and return it with interest, was simply not allowed even a toe-hold in his semifinal, until he managed to extend a rally for 5-4 in the third game and moved subsequently and briefly to his first lead of 7-4.
White opened up at a ferocious pace, hitting nicks from all angles, powering balls to the deep court on either hand and slamming in three-wall-nick shots at such regular intervals that it came to look like a common workaday shot. In 14 minutes he had taken the first game 15-9 and 10 minutes later he had the second in the bag 15-7.
The defending champion had been struggling with training since injuring an ankle in an England National Squash League match and had to dig very deep into his energy reserves to overcome Anthony Ricketts in the quarterfinals in Antwerp. He appeared to be half-a-yard off the pace, but it was a pace that might have left any player in the game struggling to keep up. “When John starts hitting the nicks with that sort of power and accuracy, there is just nothing you can do except wait for him to start missing a few, and I think he made only about three mistake in the whole match,” said Nicol.
In fact White made seven unforced errors by this writer's count, but on the credit side he hit eight nicks in the first game, six in the second and six in the third. In addition he killed the ball dead at least a dozen times and hit at least a brace of three-wall-nick-shots in each game.
“I was aware that two games down is where Peter Nicol becomes most dangerous,” the Australian born Scot said after the semifinal. “I had prepared myself for Plan B, to be patient and settle to rallying with him as he fought back into the match. But I didn't need to change. The sights stayed settled, I could see the nick clearly and I kept hitting the target.
“I once beat Jonathon Power in Qatar playing that way. But this may be the best match I ever played in my life.” That previous clash was a 70-minute quarterfinal of the 2002 Qatar Classic in November when White won 13-15, 15-14, 15-13, 15-8.
In Qatar Palmer beat White 15-13, 15-7, 14-15, 15-5 in a 61-minute semifinal before going on to lose to Nicol in a 92-minute final.
The deposed champion acknowledged that he was rarely within range of resisting White. “I was planning a month off after this event,” said Nicol, who won the title the last time this event was run, in Cairo in 1999. “Now I might just have to start training again tomorrow to be ready to get it back next year.”
White did not carry quite that standard of semifinal splendor into the final, but he opened with an early 8-4 lead in the 19-minute first game, then went from 10-10 in two hands to seal the second with the same loose armed, almost casual battery of nicked cross court returns of service, three-wall nick shots and thunderous kills that had destroyed Nicol. He seemed to rest slightly through the third as Palmer grafted to 6-2 and then accelerated to 11-4 and 15-6 in a measured and patient way.
“I am used to being a couple of games behind John,” Palmer said. “I haven't often beaten him in less than five games.”
At 11-11 in the fourth, Palmer came out to change his racquet and promptly lost the next two rallies. Then White hit a forehand boast into the tin and a backhand cross court return of service similarly down, but achieved matchball with a running forehand drop shot off a low ball in the top righthand corner. A backhand drop from Palmer brought the tiebreak and the single point gamble on matchball/gameball at 14-14.
“I can't tell you what I was thinking after hitting that simple forehand into the tin,” White said after the final. “I will never be closer to being world champion without actually winning. I was a hair's breadth away from the title and, although I took a 4-2 lead in the fifth, I was never in with a chance again.”
Another Australian, Anthony Ricketts, stole the plaudits from the quarterfinals playing with extraordinary speed and invention, to keep Nicol on court for 104 minutes and, while he did not have enough left to command the vital fourth game, looked good enough in the first three games to cause a real upset before running down to a commendable 12-15, 15-12, 11-15, 15-10, 15-8 defeat. Nicol admitted later that this match was still in his legs when he needed more mobility against White.
In the third round England's Simon Parke raised one of his best performances since ankle injury took him out of the game last year to beat Australia's third seeded Stewart Boswell, and Scotland's Martin Heath benefited from an injury to Lee Beachill, the British National Champion, to advance 15-10, 7-15, 15-12, 7-1 after 60 minutes.
Mansoor Zaman of Pakistan defeated Alex Gough, the experienced Welsh Champion, 4-15, 16-17, 15-12, 17-14, 15-7 in a 76-minute second round encounter, while David Evans, another Welshman, kept Palmer very occupied for 87 minutes before losing 12-15 in the fifth.
In the first round Gregory Gaultier of France defeated Del Harris 12-15, 15-10, 15-2, 9-15, 15-8 in 76 minutes.