In a dramatic clash which went the full distance, favourites Egypt eventually overcame surprise opponents India 2/1 in the final of the SDAT WSF Under-21 World Cup to deny the hosts a historic first world title in the inaugural World Squash Federation event before an ecstatic crowd at the Express Avenue Mall in Chennai.
The largest shopping complex in southern India attracted a near record crowd of over 75,000 on the day that India were playing in the first world squash final in the country’s history. Throughout the long final, a significant percentage of the crowd were either surrounding the unique ASB GlassCourt court or hanging over balconies of the three floors overlooking the spectacular all-glass showcourt which features a pioneering new glass floor with under-floor LED lighting.
It was a tall order for the hosts in the opening match where team number one Ravi Dixit, ranked 183 in the world, faced Egypt’s world No33 Marwan El Shorbagy, the highest-ranked man in the tournament.
The Delhi-born 20-year-old threw everything he had at the in-form world junior champion – and recovered from 2/0 down to win the third game, despite having to warm up a new ball at game-ball at 10-4.
But El Shorbagy, still only 18, stamped his authority on the next game to win 11-4, 11-7, 7-11, 11-7 in 58 minutes – and put the favourites into the lead.
But the match of the championship then followed – in which the star of Indian squash Dipika Pallikal, the highest-ranked woman in the event, faced Egyptian rival Nour El Sherbini.
The head-to-head record between the pair was one-all – but 20-year-old Pallikal is currently ranked 14 in the world, nine places above the 16-year-old former world junior champion from Alexandria.
Chennai born-and-bred Pallikal took the opening game, but to the dismay of the crowd, Sherbini won the next two to move ahead.
The Egyptian maintained her control of the match to march on to match-ball at 10-6. But Pallikal was not about to concede and, urged on by the exuberant crowd, clawed her way back into the game – saving four match-balls to draw level.
The crowd erupted – shouting and screaming more than ever before – and it as some time before the local heroine was able to resume play. Twice more Sherbini moved to within a single point of the title – and twice Pallikal fought back before finally converting her own first game ball – having saved six match-balls – to win the game 14-12.
With crowd scenes and screams rarely witnessed before at a squash event, Pallikal returned to the court inspired. After losing two points from 8-3 up, she returned the next serve into the nick, delivered a delicate back hand drop shot again into the nick before winning the third on a no let to claim a sensational 11-7, 4-11, 8-11, 14-12, 11-5 victory after 74 long minutes.
Pallikal was besieged by delirious fans and TV crews before speaking briefly to the crowd via the tournament MC.
Later, the Indian champion who is now coached by Australian legend Sarah Fitz-Gerald, admitted that the match had been her toughest of all-time. “I spoke to Sarah this morning and I knew she’d be watching – and all I could think about, when I was match-ball down, was what would I tell her when we next spoke.
“She had told me to keep going until the very end – the game’s not over until somebody wins – and that’s where I got my strength and confidence,” explained Pallikal.
“And I didn’t want to lose in front of my family and friends.”
With the crowd now sensing a shock victory, the semi-final hero Ramit Tandon took to the court to face Egypt’s Karim Abdel Gawad in the decider.
Gawad, a 20-year-old ranked 42 in the world, took the first game after a tie-break and then moved 2/0 ahead. But spurred on by the increasingly noisy crowd, Kolkata-born Tandon – ranked almost 300 places below his opponent – battled hard and took the third game to reduce the deficit.
But as the Egyptian reclaimed the advantage in the fourth, the crowd became more muted until Gawad eventually clinched his third match-ball to win 12-10, 11-4, 6-11, 11-8 after 67 minutes to earn the title for Egypt.
“It was a quality match for both sides – but I’m happy we did it for the second time,” said Egyptian coach Amir Wagih, making reference to his country’s victory almost 12 months earlier in the senior World Cup in Chennai.
“But congratulations to India – we expected it to be tough, but we really enjoyed it.”
Indian national coach Cyrus Poncha was not wholly unhappy with the outcome: “If someone had said to me a week ago that we would be in the final, I would have taken it. What we achieved to get this far was brilliant – and today’s performances by our players were outstanding.
“Dipika and Ramit rose to the occasion and played brilliant squash.”
Earlier, second seeds England avenged their earlier shock pool defeat to France by beating the third seeds 2/1 in the Bronze medal play-off.
Top string Charles Sharpes made up for his previous loss to Lucas Serme by fighting back from 2/1 down to overcome the Frenchman 14-12, 7-11, 5-11, 11-6, 11-5 in 76 minutes – the longest match of the tournament.
The pair came through junior ranks together, but Sharpes had not previously beaten the 19-year-old from Paris since 2009.
“Certainly this was a big match – both for me personally and for the team,” conceded Sharpes afterwards. “I’ve played Lucas so many times, since we were about ten years old, and we are good friends.
“But I just wanted to beat him to get revenge for the defeat earlier in the week. He’s a very strong player and that was a tough match. I switched off a bit in the third game – but stepped up the concentration in the fourth and fifth.”
Emily Whitlock, the 17-year-old who pulled off the biggest win of her life 24 hours earlier when she beat Egypt’s world junior champion Nour El Tayeb for the first time, faced France’s Cyrielle Peltier.
The English teenager maintained her blistering form in Chennai to put away 19-year-old Peltier 11-5, 11-7, 11-7 in 31 minutes to clinch victory for the jubilant England team.
“We’re all excited to be involved in such a great event which bridges the gap between juniors and seniors,” England coachDavid Campion told event MC Rochelle Rao. “All our players play on the PSA and WSA Tours, but playing for your country is different – and the experience they will get out of this will be second to none.”
England’s earlier defeat by France led to the second favourites having to face overwhelming favourites Egypt in the semi-finals.
“Yesterday was very disappointing, but at the same time encouraging – it inspired our players. Charles was a different player today and set up the situation beautifully for Emily to go through and win.
“And Emily definitely got our ‘man-of-the-match’ award today!” concluded Campion.
RESULTS: SDAT WSF U21 World Cup, Chennai, India
 EGYPT bt  INDIA 2/1
Marwan El Shorbagy bt Ravi Dixit 11-4, 11-7, 7-11, 11-7 (58m)
Nour El Sherbini lost to Dipika Pallikal 7-11, 11-4, 11-8, 12-14, 5-11 (74m)
Karim Abdel Gawad bt Ramit Tandon 12-10, 11-4, 6-11, 11-8 (67m)
Bronze medal play-off:
 ENGLAND bt  FRANCE 2/0
Charles Sharpes bt Lucas Serme 14-12, 7-11, 5-11, 11-6, 11-5 (76m)
Emily Whitlock bt Cyrielle Peltier 11-5, 11-7, 11-7 (31m)
Declan James v Geoffrey Demont (match withdrawn)
5th place play-off:
 HONG KONG CHINA bt  AUSTRALIA 2/0
Yeung Ho Wai bt Jamie McErvale 4-11, 12-10, 11-7, 11-5 (58m)
Tong Tsz-Wing bt Sarah Cardwell 7-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-5, 14-12 (70m)
Cheuk Yan Tang v Walter Koteka (match withdrawn)
7th place play-off:
 MALAYSIA bt  GERMANY 2/1
Affeeq Abedeen Ismail lost to Rudi Rohrmuller 7-11, 3-11, 7-11 (30m)
Rachel Arnold bt Franziska Hennes 11-13, 11-6, 6-11, 11-5, 11-7 (50m)
Sanjay Singh bt Valentin Rapp 11-4, 11-3, 11-2 (42m)