Paul Price & the Aussies
World Team Championships 2001
Individual events are fine, but it's a good old dollop of team spirit that really brings out the best at any squash festival. And the WSF World Challenge winner, Paul Price, confirmed that Melbourne 2001 was no different.
On the eve of the launch of Australia's bid for a record seventh world team championship crown, Price, one of Melbourne's treasured sons, beat compatriot Anthony Ricketts to win the Challenge trophy.
“But there will be no celebrations just yet,” insisted the world No. 6. “My big aim is to help Australia win the team championship next week; that's what I'm here for, and that's the title that we all want.” So the champagne was put on ice.
As the hosts, the top seeds and with a line-up that also boasted world No. 1 David Palmer, the fast-rising Stewart Boswell, and the always reliable John Williams, Australia were strong favorites. But seven matches in as many days can take a heavy toll and throw up any amount of injuries, upsets, and strange results. Nothing was certain.
Scotland confirmed that reputations count for nothing on the opening morning. Within a couple of hours of the launch of the marathon event, a team containing two world top-10 players in John White and Martin Heath had been unceremoniously dumped 2-1 by the unfancied Netherlands.
But it proved to be the only shock of the opening, with Australia making their entry by dropping just half a dozen points in the three rubbers against Hong Kong.
On day two, England, the No. 3 seeds, were given a fright from Pakistan, the country that shared the record number of six wins with Australia. Chris Walker, the New York-based veteran who surprised everyone (himself included!) by reaching this year's British Open final at the age of 34, went down in straight games to Shahid Zaman.
And when Mark Chaloner dropped the opening game to Zaman's cousin, Mansoor Zaman, the champions from 1995 and 1997 and the team defending the bronze medal became noticeably twitchy.
But Chaloner recovered to win in four—(7), 5, 1, 7—and Lee Beachill, the English newcomer, puffed a sigh of relief with a 6, 3, (4), 6 triumph over Ajaz Azmad in the deciding rubber.
Again, there was no problem for the Aussies, with Ireland on the receiving end of a 3-0 pounding.
But the curtain wouldn't fall on the round robin stage without a major casualty. Wales, beaten by Egypt in the 1999 final, had arrived as the No. 2 seed, and hopeful of going one better than in Cairo two years ago.
But South Africa had other ideas. David Evans provided the Welsh, coached by Australia's former world No. 2 Chris Robertson, the perfect start with a comfortable straight games win over Rodney Durbach at the No. 1 string.
But Alex Gough lost easily to Glenn Whittaker, and Greg Tippings, the far less experienced third string, went down in four to Michael Toothill.
South Africa had won the group, and the Welsh suffered more misery a few moments later when they were drawn to meet England in a tough, all-British, last-16 clash. “I had a feeling that was going to happen,” said a despondent Robertson as he visualized his 1999 team of fighting terriers suddenly becoming struggling underdogs.
As for Australia, Palmer was given the night off and could sit back, relax, and enjoy watching his teammates run out straightforward 3-0 victors over Norway. The Pool matches were over; the job had been well done.
So it was into the knockout stage, and England provided the first fatal blow with a 2-1 win over the Welsh. The opening second string between Walker and Gough was always going to be crucial, and it was the Englishman that always held the upper hand. In fact, it was a disappointingly one-sided affair with Walker winning 3, 0, 7.
Evans did level the scores against Chaloner, but Beachill was always going to be far too strong for Tippings, and he duly had the honor of propelling his side into the quarterfinals.
Elsewhere, there were few eye-raisers. Australia continued to have it easy, although Price did drop the host side's first game of the championships in beating Christian Drakenberg in four in the match against Sweden.
Scotland, having recovered from the opening day drubbing from the Dutch, reached the quarterfinals at the expense of Finland, while France, Malaysia, South Africa, Egypt, and Canada also advanced to the last eight.
Now it was getting serious, and Egypt proved that even minus the services of the recently retired former world No. 2 Ahmed Barada, that they were far from willing to have the trophy prized from their grasp.
Canada, led by world No. 2 Jonathon Power, might be favorites on paper. But with Power struggling with injury and the Egyptians desperate to belie their lowly No. 6 seeding, Kareem Darwish—a straight games winner over Power—and Mohammed Abbas, a four games victor over Shabier Razik—sent the holders into the semis.
The Australians continued to enjoy a smooth ride, although Price did have a little taste of the roller coaster with a five-game thriller against Jean-Michel Arcucci in a quarterfinal versus France. But once he had completed a 3, 0, (9-10), (9-10), 4 win, the last four place was virtually safe. Palmer and Boswell both went on to win easily.
But England did suffer a few scary moments against Malaysia. Walker beat Ken Low in the first match, but Ong Beng Hee, the highly talented former world junior champion, leveled the proceedings with a 7, 0, 4 win over Chaloner.
Suitably inspired, Mohammed Azlan then came all guns blazing and shocked Paul Johnson by sweeping through the first two games, 6, 3. But, thanks to the prompting and encouragement from the sizable entourage backing up England's cause, Johnson battled back to take the next three, 2, 2, 5.
“I could feel everyone was behind me and I didn't want to let them down,” stated a mightily relieved Englishman, having taken his team through to a semi against Australia.
Scotland completed the final four, beating South Africa 2-1 to reach the semis for a first time.
But it proved to be the end of the trail for the Scots. It might have been oh so different if former world No. 1 Peter Nicol had not defected to England earlier in the year, but Egypt proved to be just that little bit better.
In a wonderfully tactical battle that wasn't really done justice by the scoreline, Omar El Borolossy set the holders off on the right foot with a 3, (0), 2, 2 win over Heath. White hit back to beat Darwish in four, but Scotland's third string, Neil Frankland, a full-time coach who has never played on the circuit, was never going to be a threat to Abbas.
So Egypt were through to a second successive final and Scotland were left to reflect on Nicol's departure and what might have been.
The other semi turned out to be a titanic struggle, with the Australians facing a determined English camp. In the opening second string, Walker took the first game against Price, and it took five games to eventually settle the issue in the home man's favor—(6), 0, 6, (7), 2.
Palmer also dropped the opening game to Chaloner before similarly coming out on the right side of a deciding game battle, (4), 3, (2), 3, 2. Only because the contest was over did Boswell enjoy an easy passage against Beachill.
So the final day dawned, with Egypt hoping to retain the trophy and Australia so anxious to please the home fans and become the first team to claim seven world titles from the 18-team championships.
In the vital opening rubber, Price produced some of his best form of the week, while El Borolossy couldn't quite reach the heights of his semifinal win over Heath. Constantly niggling the referee's decisions, an unhappy Egyptian went down 2, (0), 3.
So it was up to Darwish, the world junior champion, to keep the match alive by beating Palmer. It was a formidable assignment, although he did raise hopes by taking the opening game, and he certainly rattled his opponent. So much so that the Australian, having battled back to lead by two games to one and by 6-2 in the fourth, was then docked two conduct strokes by referee Jack Allen for “unnecessary physical conduct” as he barged into the youngster.
But while the intervention did help Darwish claw his way back into contention, Palmer held on to win (8-10), 1, 0, 10-8 and spark the Australian celebrations. Boswell could then enjoy every moment of his dead rubber win over Abbas.
So, a week after his individual triumph, Price was dipping into the fridge for his overdue slurp of champagne. And the fact that he had Palmer, Boswell, Williams, and team coach Rodney Martin, the former world No. 1, for company, made it even more special.
“This is the dream come true; a moment I've been working towards for a long time,” he beamed.
Palmer agreed. “To win a record seventh title for Australia in my first world championships is fantastic,” said the player whose individual fairy tale was winning the British Open Championship in June.
And he went on to suggest that the record-breaking trail could be splashed in green and gold for years to come. “With our strong young squad of players, I really think we could dominate world squash for years to come,” he predicted.
But, for the moment, it was time to celebrate a great triumph on home soil, and the perfect finale to Melbourne's magical three-week Festival of Squash.