Breathtaking, brilliant squash was on full display on the glass court under the magnificent chandeliers in Grand Central Terminal as the four best players in men’s squash did battle with each other in the semifinals of the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions to earn the right to play for the vaunted title.
The first match on was a classic confrontation of two great shotmakers and strategists. World #1 Ramy Ashour and 4th ranked James Willstrop have had several memorable matches on the ToC glass court and tonight was one of their best ever.
“There’s something in the air here,” said Willstrop “We always seem to have really good matches. There is a great sense of occasion for these matches at the Tournament of Champions.”
Willstrop rose to the occasion from the very start with focus, intensity and a dead on backcourt game that prevented Ashour from deploying his lethal front court shotmaking. Willstrop won the game 11-5, leaving the voluble Egyptian talking to himself in frustration. The 30-year-old Englishman jumped out to another early lead, 4-1, in the second game. Ashour yelled in frustration at himself, looked to his brother Hisham in the stands just behind the court and shouted at him, and somehow, in that moment, the match dynamic changed. Ashour was back in the game – literally and figuratively.
The 25-year-old then figured out how to work his way back to the front of T. He matched Willstrop’s length to the back corners and began moving his 6’4” opponent to the corners. Willstrop responded in kind, and the rallies throughout the midpoint of the second game held the standing room only crowd spellbound. As soon as either player got a loose ball, he attacked with a deft drop shot to the front court or a hard drive. There was a continuing change of pace throughout the game. Tied at 8 all, it was anybody’s game. Ashour closed it out ,11-8.
The third game was a seesaw, with the lead exchanging hands several times. This was squash at its very best, showcasing the contrasting player styles. Ashour was hitting spectacularly good shots and Willstrop played extraordinary defense to keep points alive several times over. The tall Englishman was scrambling, diving and turning quickly to make gets that would be amazing for any player, let alone for a player 6’4” tall. But it wasn’t all defense from Willstrop. When he had an opening, he used the deft, soft shotmaking that has prompted his opponent to refer to Willstrop as the “English Egyptian.”
Down 8-10 in the third, Willstrop hit a backhand drop nick winner. At 9-10, Ramy took control of the point, hitting attacking shots to the front and back of the court which had Willstrop twisting, turning and lunging, but it was Willstrop who won the point with a volley winner to even the score at 10 all. A crackling forehand drive from Ashour forced an error from Willstrop and a loose Willstrop service return on game ball opened up the court for an Ashour winner to give the 25-year-old Egyptian the game, 12-10.
The fourth was another back and forth battle which had the players tied at eight all, nine all and ten all. A soft crosscourt forehand drop winner and a straight drop from Willstrop that forced an error into the tin from Ashour gave Willstrop the game, 12-10.
Ashour charged out at the beginning of the fifth with a quick hitting, attacking game that gave him an 8-3 lead. After more than an hour of especially brutal squash, Willstrop showed the slightest hint of weariness and Ashour earned his place in the finals with an 11-4 fifth game victory. “It was anybody’s match to win, and Ramy put together a couple of good rallies at the end that had a domino effect to open up that fifth game,” said Willstrop after the match. “That’s why he is the very best player in the world right now.”
“That was hard,” said Ashour, “and one my very best wins. I had to push and push. I was trying to control the pace and play well into the corners. To win a match like this, you have to have more than skill. You have to have will, determination and resilience.” The world #1, who is often lauded for his extraordinary shotmaking ability, is not content to have those skills be his ultimate legacy. “It is more important for me to be known as a fighter than a skill player.”
Ashour will have a fight on his hands in the finals when he takes on Gregory Gaultier who defeated defending champion Nick Matthew in four hard-hitting games. It was a gladiatorial contest between the two players known as being the strongest men on the PSA tour.
The first two games saw the players trading crackling drives and cross courts, shot for shot, and exchanging the lead on almost every other point. Gaultier drew first blood, winning the opening game 11-8. Matthew responded by grabbing the second, 12-10. Although Gaultier took the early lead in the third game at 5-3, he became irritated with the referees and the lead slipped away. When Matthew surged ahead to 10-6, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the 32-year-old Englishman, known for his competitive focus, would win the game and take the match lead.
But it was Gaultier who regained his focus. Two winners from Gaultier were followed by two unforced errors from Matthew and the game was tied at 10 all. When Gaultier won the game 13-11, the match momentum shifted dramatically to his racquet.
The 30-year-old Frenchman looked like a man on fire at the start of the fourth as he sprinted out to a 7-0 lead. A dispirited Matthew was unable to mount a charge and Gaultier finished out the game 11-3 to earn his second finals appearance at the Tournament of Champions.
“Credit to Greg for never giving up the third game,” said Matthew after the match. ”It was psychologically tough in the fourth; I couldn’t get my mind off not having closed the door when I was up 10-6 in the third.”
“I felt a bit flat at the end of the second game,” said Gaultier. “At one all, I knew it was going to be very tough. But when I won the third game, it gave me confidence and I forgot about being tired.”
Grinham to face Brown in women’s final
Defending champion Natalie Grinham will play fellow Australian Kasey Brown in the finals of the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions Thursday evening on the glass court in Grand Central Terminal.
J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions 2013, semi-finals:
 Ramy Ashour (Egy) bt  James Willstrop (Eng) 5/11, 11/8, 12/10, 10/12, 11/4 (78m)
 Grégory Gaultier (Fra) bt  Nick Matthew (Eng) 11/8, 10/12, 13/11, 11/3 (94m)
 Kasey Brown (Aus) bt  Madeline Perry (Irl) 11/6, 11/8, 8/11, 11/6 ()
 Natalie Grinham (Ned) bt  Rachael Grinham (Au 11/9, 11/2, 11/7 (27m)