China Open Finals: Mohamed & Nour Champions…
Tayeb and ElShorbagy beat top seeds to claim China Open titles
Leonard Lee reports
With a performance that can only be described as nothing short of electrifying, Nour El Tayeb clawed her way back from a fifth-game deficit to win her first China Squash Open. It was a rollercoaster of a match that saw the tides shift time and time throughout. No game was won with more than the bare minimum difference of two points, serving as a testament to how different the results could have been.
“I can’t believe I won. It feels a bit like a dream because throughout the match, I was tired and I had to keep reminding myself of one more rally at a time,” said El Tayeb.
It was a match characterized by precision, fortitude, and finesse. The rallies, especially at critical moments late in the games, suspended the audience as it seemed impossible to predict who would win.
The rallies in the first two games were brief. Within the first couple of points, it became apparent that both players were keen on punishing each other’s loose shots with remarkable sharpness and accuracy. El Welily, in her typical fashion, opened up the first game with a string of clean winners, taking advantage of El Tayeb’s early stiffness and lack of a rhythm. The world number 5, however, responded in kind when she realized she was lagging behind. It was a combination of mistakes by El Welily and a few no-let calls that gave El Tayeb a surprising first game victory. The roles were reversed in the second game, as El Tayeb, who seemed to have an advantage with a 9-7 lead, was unable to close it out. It is difficult to overstate how many points were won off of punishes of loose retrievals. When one player plays a shot that strays too far from the side wall, the other swiftly wins the point by playing an uncontentious winner.
It was only in the third game that lengthy rallies became common. Even then, periods of prolonged exchanges were frequently cut short by razor-edged finishers. It was also at this time when El Tayeb, having seemingly shaken off the stiffness and nerves from her first two games, began pulling off incredible saves. El Welily, at this point, was playing more confidently and initiating more attacks than El Tayeb. In the previous games, many shots would have been sure winners, but in the third, El Tayeb started reaching those impossible shots. Many times, El Tayeb would retrieve a ball that seemed so perfect, her husband Ali Farag would jump off his seat out of sheer incredulity. El Welily, who was also a bit shocked at some of the saves, was pressured into making blunders that El Tayeb aptly capitalized on. She won the game, fittingly, with a graceful nick off of one of El Welily’s loose returns.
“She is very good when it comes to retrievals,” said El Welily. “She is also very good at hiding her shots.”
El Tayeb, gaining some confidence, also played sharper. She launched into a 4-0 lead against a beleaguered El Welily, appearing to have solidified her win. But El Welily, on her last breath, mounted an incredible comeback, eventually taking the game on a contentious no-let call that drew out disapproving voices from the crowd.
“Now that I’m relaxed, I agree with the decision actually,” El Tayeb said. “I was getting tired by the end of the fourth game, so I just wanted the match to be over.”
El Tayeb would eventually find herself in a situation against a spirited El Welily, 5-7 down and seemingly having squandered a perfect opportunity to win her first China Squash Open. She remained resilient, and refused to give any easy points to the world number one.
“I was trying to focus on the shots I was playing. I was trying to forget about the score,” said El Tayeb. “I just kept pushing and pushing and I got the reward at the end.”
After a hard-fought seventy minutes, she emerged victorious.
“It’s a dream start to the season and hopefully I can keep going,” said El Tayeb.
The rivalry between Mohamed Elshorbagy and Ali Farag is arguably the fiercest in pro squash right now. Ever since Farag overtook Elshorbagy’s foremost rank as the best player in the world, the latter has repeatedly vowed to reclaim his title. Elshorbagy’s win of the first tournament of the season is a good start to his goal that potentially augurs a promising year. He defeated Farag in four games to claim his second China Squash Open trophy.
While Elshorbagy struggled in the early rounds of the tournament – as he stumbled against lower ranked players, nearly losing his second-round match against Lucas Serme – he showed no signs of it in the finals. His demeanor was a polar opposite to that of his earlier matches: he was calm, composed, and rarely made any noise other than the occasional self-muttering. Elshorbagy didn’t seem to panic at all during this match. He kept his cool while a tenser Farag acted unsettled. Most importantly, Elshorbagy was confident with his calculus, and his razor-sharp shots only complemented it.
“It’s the finals; the more relaxed you are, the more you can think,” said Elshorbagy. “You have to be relaxed, you have to be focused to know what you’re doing.”
He started off the first game strong by taking a 7-0 lead against a mentally-calibrating Farag. Elshorbagy was patient with his opportunities and looked to have a focus on hitting his marks. Farag, on the other hand, couldn’t find his rhythm during the game.
He came back after the short break rejuvenated and determined. Farag’s shots landed deeper and tighter, making it harder for Elshorbagy to volley as much as he did in the first game. The fewer sitting ducks allowed for Farag to experiment with his own shots too. However, he somehow seemed to be mostly on the back foot. It was Elshorbagy initiating most of the attacks and increasing the pace, and Farag still didn’t seem too comfortable.
“I wasn’t as sharp as I would have liked to be, but it’s always the case at the beginning of the season, so there is nothing to worry about,” said Farag.
Elshorbagy would make five unforced errors in Farag’s first six points of the third game. His power also let up, and Farag promptly punished him.
In the fourth game, Elshorbagy did not seem at all impacted by the loss of the previous game. In fact, he appeared more certain with what he was doing. His shots were true and bold, many of them upfront winners even against a skillful retriever like Farag.
“He was playing very well, very smartly, very tactically,” said Farag. “He was hitting the ball well, and going for shots whenever he was presented the opportunity.”
For the world number 2, it helped that he no longer started the season at the forefront of the squash world. Although Elshorbagy would like to be in that spot, he finds the newfound motivation liberating.
“This match felt different, it felt like he had more pressure than me,” Elshorbagy said. “For the first time I was playing him with less pressure, I really enjoyed that.”
He knows, however, that their clash in China is only the first of many more to come.
“We’ve been playing tough matches together… this is only our first match this season, and I know we’re going to have way more battles and harder battles this season,” Elshorbagy said as smiled while holding a large bouquet of flowers and his trophy.
Finalists decided in Shanghai
Leonard Lee reports
For El Welily, China has become a comfort zone
Raneem El Welily held off an animated Hania Elhammamy in three (11-8, 12-10, 11-8) to reach the China Squash Open finals once more.
Elhammamy, who upset Annie Au and Joelle King, both higher seeded players, was the clear underdog in this matchup. Although she may not have taken a game off the world number one, she definitely forced El Welily to play her best hand.
After a shaky start, El Welily took control of the first game when she adjusted to El Hammamy’s aggression. Elhammamy seemed to wind up a powerful shot at every opening, injecting a lot of pace. It appeared to have caught El Welily a little off guard, but in the second half of the first game, the more veteran player found a way to counteract Elhammamy’s hard hitting. Even though Elhammamy kept bludgeoning her drives and kills, El Welily, by that time, had grown quite comfortable to the pace of game.
“I just tried to contain the pace as much as I could,” said El Welily. “I tried to slow down whenever I needed to and injected pace at different times, mixing it up.”
The second game was significantly closer than the first. El Hammamy hadn’t run out of ideas yet. She hit some bedazzling winners that awed the crowd, giving her an opportunity to come back into the match. The two players went neck to neck in every point, but Elhammamy’s consistency varied a little too much in the late game. She would hit a couple of stunning winners, only to hit an unforced error in the next rally. In the second and third games, El Welily would just barely edge out Elhammamy with her better consistency.
“We had long rallies and I think I adapted well during those long rallies,” said Elhammamy. “I think I gave her a tough match today and I’m happy with that.”
El Welily, elated off of the fact that she made the finals of the China Squash Open again, had some positive things to say about the venue and tournament.
“It’s such a special place for me now, I’ve got good results almost every time here now, so I’m really pleased,” she said.
The Elshorbagy Brothers face-off in China semis
Another episode of family feud premiered tonight when brothers Mohamed and Marwan Elshorbagy played each other in the semi-finals of the 2019 China Squash Open. In spite of taking an early hit from losing the first game, the older Elshorbagy eventually triumphed by winning the next three (8-11, 11-5, 11-8, 11-9)
It was an exciting match filled with high pace rallies that elicited ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the local crowd. The two, who have frequently trained together in the past, have met 16 times at PSA events, leaving no room for surprises.
“He obviously knows my game very well so no matter what I do it is not going to surprise him, but anything that he was going to do, I was not going to be surprised either,” said Mohamed Elshorbagy.
The first game started off with Mohamed making a string of unforced errors, gifting Marwan an early lead that he would not catch up to. Marwan, although not playing perfectly, was able to fool his brother with a few unexpected drops and kills. Those shots, along with the litany of mistakes made by Mohamed, sealed a solid first game win for Marwan.
Mohamed, realizing what was on the line, stepped up his act after the short two-minute break. He came in blazing, upping the pace by a considerable amount, which narrowed Marwan’s windows of opportunity. Perhaps he came in a little too strong, because seven points in, Mohamed had to get a scraped knee patched up. Although he never seemed to fully acclimate to the new knee wrap – he continuously fidgeted with it throughout the match – it did not seem to perturb his game one bit. Mohamed employed his signature zoning strategy, where he uses his large size to squeeze his opponent out of position, to punish Marwan’s premature attacking or loose shots. Coupled with his power, Mohamed hit some brutal winners that drew out loud applause from the crowd.
The younger sibling was not keen on conceding his first game lead so easily. Marwan, for the most part, kept up with his brother’s high pace during the third game. He tidied up his lengths, and made fewer mistakes, which led to some exciting rallies that kept spectators at the edge of their seats. Throughout the last two games, Marwan played some brilliant winners: softer shots defined more by deception and finesse than Mohamed’s powerful finishers. However, Marwan went for one too many risky gambits at critical points during the match. At 9-9 during the fourth game, he played an unexpected, and unnecessary, back court drop that landed miles below the tin. It gave Mohamed too much momentum and stopped too much of his own.
When asked about what he tried to do during the match, Mohamed responded simply:
“I just had to get my tactics right”
“It was a match where, after the first game, I had to get a lead, a head start,” he said. “There was no room for errors.”
Both sides also got visibly fired up during the match, frequently getting into altercations with the referee. To Mohamed, however, it was just nature competitive matches. Most of his ire on court was directed at himself, mostly for “losing focus”.
“I thought the referee handled the match very well… he called it really well,” Mohamed said. “I just sometimes get angry at myself, I just wanted to refocus… to get myself back into the game.”
El Tayeb downs Gohar to reach her first China Squash Open final
Nour El Tayeb secured a confident 11-6, 11-5, 11-8 victory against Nouran Gohar to schedule a rematch with Raneem El Welily, who she lost to last year in the semis, in the finals tomorrow.
El Tayeb played spectacularly, she even thought so herself.
“Today was one of my best performances,” she said.
Her control over the ebb and flow of the match was unexpected as onlookers were predicting a score that was much closer. The crux of the match boiled down to El Tayeb’s accuracy and her strong retrievals of Gohar’s attacking shots. El Tayeb’s front court was deadly tonight. Countless times, when she was given a loose boast or drop shot, El Tayeb outplayed Gohar with her delayed shots. The ‘holding’ effect worked wonders, and it enabled El Tayeb to take large early leads that she would not relinquish. Even though Gohar played a much faster and more aggressive game, she couldn’t seem to secure any points from a relentless El Tayeb.
To the dismay of El Tayeb’s acrobatics fans, she didn’t perform any dives during this match. She did, however, wow the crowd numerous times with her sliding retrievals of Gohar’s attacking shots.
Farag beats Ghosal to enable a top-seed-only men’s final
Ali Farag and his wife, Nour El Tayeb, made headlines when they won the US Squash Open together in 2017. Now they stand the chance to perform a similar feat on the opposite side of the globe, as they both reach the finals of the 2019 China Squash Open. Farag defeated Saurav Ghosal three games to nil – 11-4, 11-9, 11-4 – to reach his second China Squash Open final.
Farag played some quintessential Farag squash during the match in a perfect demonstration on the importance of the T, or center-court control for those unfamiliar with squash jargon. Using his height and large wingspan to his advantage, Farag refused to let a much smaller, but more agile and aggressive, Ghosal get into a comfortable position on the court. In the first game, Farag incessantly punished Ghosal for playing loose cross courts with his reach. Ghosal had to constantly run around Farag to get to balls played in the opposite corner of the court. Very few times during the first game was Ghosal able to properly settle down on the T, and Farag aptly capitalized on this by playing volleys that even Ghosal, who is one of the quickest and nimblest players in the world, was unable to get to. All of Ghosal’s attacks also seemed to be gracefully retrieved by Farag, and for now he seemed unsure of how to get out of the hole that he was in.
Ghosal returned in the second game with a stronger resolve. He took a stronger position in the center of the court and read Farag’s front court shots like a book. His shots also began finding their marks with some undisputable winners that stunned Farag. At the very end of the game, however, the Egyptian managed to wrestle T-control away from Ghosal. The Indian was unable to regain his strong position during the rest of the match.
“If Saurav stands in front of you he’s a very skillful player, so I couldn’t afford to do that,” said Farag. “I had to play my basic lengths very well, not at one height either, and I think I did today.”
Hania downs King in Shanghai shocker
Quarter-finals day in Shanghai started with a huge upset as Hania El Hammamy continued her sensational run with a straight-games win over fourth seeded Kiwi Joelle King. The teenage Egyptian edged the first two games, then at 9-8 in the third King needed a short injury break, but it was the World Junior Champion who took the three points she needed on the resumption.
“I’m really happy with my performance today,” said 19-year-old El Hammamy. “I played really well and it was a tough match. I knew it was going to be and it’s a very physical game between me and Joelle, so I’m glad to get through it.
“The more I get big wins, the more I gain confidence and I go the next match hoping I can win. It feels outrageous [to be in my first Gold semi-final], I’m really happy and I just want to win the semi-final as well. I’m looking forward to possibly playing the final – I don’t see why I can’t do it. “
That win guaranteed two all Egyptian semi-finals, the first of which was set when top seed Raneem El Welily beat Salma Hany in straight games to set up a meeting with Hania.
In the bottom half of the draw Nour El Tayeb raced past Nadine Shahin while second seed Nouran Gohar needed all five games to see off the challenge of Yathreb Adel.
In the men’s quarters, ElShorbagy brothers Mohamed and Marwan set up a semi-final meeting as Mohamed came from a game down to beat Leo Au and Marwan edged past fellow-Egyptian Omar Mosaad in three close games.
Saurav Ghosal ensured non-Egyptian interest in the semis as he beat Mazen Hesham in a long four game encounter, and he’ll meet top seed Ali Farag who edged past England’s Tom Richards in another five-setter.
Round TWO: Egyptian upsets all round
Round Two in Shanghai witnessed a series of lengthy women’s matches, a number of – mainly Egyptian – upset wins, and a stunning comeback from Mohamed ElShorbagy from two games down to Lucas Serme.
 Mohamed ElShorbagy (Egy) 3-2 Lucas Serme (Fra) 8-11, 9-11, 11-7, 11-4, 11-2 (66m)
“Lucas played so well today,” said former World No.1 ElShorbagy afterwards. “We used to train together back in Bristol and have played together for so many years. I’m really happy for him to be raising his level that way, he has so much potential and I’m glad that he’s living up to that now.
“For me, that was the first match of the season and it’s always a tricky one. We had a tough battle at the beginning of the third game and from that moment I pulled through and had control of the match after, but all credit to him. I had to dig in deep to win this match and I’m very happy to live another day here.”
ElShorbagy now faces Leo Au, who produced one of two men’s seding upsets as he beat Cesar Salazar in four games. The other saw Mazen Hesham defeat Adrian Waller, also in four games.
Top seed Ali Farag finished off the day with a four game win over compatriat Youssef Soliman.
 Ali Farag (Egy) bt Youssef Soliman (Egy) 11-5, 11-4, 7-11, 11-4 (41m)
“I’m very happy,” said the 27-year-old from Cairo. “First match of the season is never easy, especially when it comes against someone like Youssef. We know each other’s games pretty well, we grew up in the same club and now I play for Wadi Degla, but we still play together a lot. I’m very happy to get away with a 3-1 win here.
“Our sport is beautiful, we get to put it anywhere in the world and to put it on top the Shanghai Bund is amazing. I’m really happy that fingers crossed the rain stays out of the area and we can keep playing on this venue.”
New Zealand’s Joelle King is the only non-Egyptian left in the women’s draw after the top seeds Raneem El Welily, Nouran Gohar and Nour El Tayeb were joined by a trio of Egyptian upset winners – Yathreb Adel, Nadine Shahin and Hania El Hammamy all beating seeded players, with Salma Hany completing the last eight.
 Raneem El Welily (Egy) 3-0 Milou van der Heijden (Ned) 11-5, 11-7, 11-5 (26m)
“She’s skilled with the racket and has such great technique and you could see she has got different plans and tactics on court. She definitely worked me on court and I’m hoping that I can continue that form on here tomorrow.
“I’ve had good memories here and bad ones, I’m just going with the flow and seeing what happens but hopefully it will be a good memory.”
World Junior Champion Hammamy was pleased with her win over fifth seed Annie Au.
Hania El Hammamy (Egy) 3-2  Annie Au (Hkg) 11-6, 11-9, 9-11, 8-11, 11-4 (62m)
“I’m happy with this win,” said Hania. “I played Annie once last season and I lost in three in 20 minutes, so I came here today and I wanted to do my best and perform better than last time. I definitely had a game plan compared to last time and I’m happy I managed to stick to that.
“I’m starting the season with confidence. Finishing last season at my highest ranking has just given me more confidence and I’m hungry for more.”
The first round of the first major PSA event of the new season witnessed a few minor upsets as the last sixteens were finalised.
Iker Pajares, Milou van der Heijden, Nada Abbas and Danielle Letourneau all overcame 9/16 seeds to advance, while Mostafa Asal ended home interest as he beat wildcard Zhitao Zhou.
Mostafa Asal (Egy) 3-0 [wc] Zhitao Zhou (Chn) 11-3, 11-4, 11-4 (23m)
“I was really pleased with my performance today,” said 18-year-old Asal, the two-time world junior champion.
“Playing the wildcard is never easy, especially at his home club. It’s difficult to manage the first game, I just played my own game and that worked well today. He is playing well and I’m looking forward to my next match.
“Tom is a good player and I hope we have a good match. Our head-to-head is 1-1 and we will see what tomorrow brings.
“To balance a junior and professional career is tough, but I’m happy to finish my junior career with a double World Junior Championship. This tournament is amazing and I hope it continues for me.”
Milou van der Heijden (Ned) 3-0 Low Wee Wern (Mas) 16-14, 11-9, 11-3 (31m)
“The first game, I think I was leading all the way, and then she kept coming back,” said 28-year-old van der Heijden after her win over three-time China Open champion Low Wee Wern..
“There were a few game balls on both sides, so to actually squeeze it in the end was a positive start. I think that first game was really important for me.
“It’s very exciting, who doesn’t want to play on the glass overlooking the Bund in Shanghai. It’s a great opportunity and experience to play Raneem and I’m looking forward to it.”
All-Egyptian Finals predicted for Shanghai
Egyptian duo Ali Farag and Mohamed ElShorbagy – the men’s World #1 and #2, respectively – are seeded to meet in the final of the J.P. Morgan China Squash Open.
The China Open is the first PSA World Tour event of the 2019/20 season and will take place between 4th and 8th September, with action from the second round onwards taking place in a glass show court on top of The Peninsula hotel, overlooking the famous Shanghai Bund.
Farag and ElShorbagy are expected to contest the title decider in what will be their 17th PSA meeting – the pair won ten titles between them and six of the seven PSA Platinum titles on offer during the 2018/19 campaign.
Reigning champion Raneem El Welily heads up the women’s draw and she is seeded to face World #4 Nouran Gohar in an all-Egyptian final.