The Humdinger in Hull
With this year’s British Open sadly postponed due to COVID-19, we take the opportunity to revisit some of the best encounters the historic tournament has served up in recent years. First up is a look back at the gruelling 2014 semi-final between home favourite Nick Matthew and then up-and-coming Egyptian Mohamed ElShorbagy.
The victorious Matthew remarked after the match that he ought to savour this win, unsure he’d get the pleasure of overcoming ElShorbagy again. And while a changing of the guard would be imminent at the top of the men’s game, The Wolf made sure he wouldn’t be bowed this time around. One hundred and two minutes of captivating squash, punctuated with controversial referee calls and raw emotion, the match was instantly dubbed “The Humdinger in Hull” by commentators Joey Barrington and Simon Parke. But six years on, we take a clear-headed approach to the numbers behind this fiery encounter, isolating five areas which ultimately decided this encounter in Matthew’s favour
With a decade age difference between Nick Matthew (33) and Mohamed Elshorbagy (23), Matthew could have been forgiven for trying to shorten the rallies where possible–a strategy often employed when trying to take fitness out of the equation. But it is testament to the Sheffield man’s remarkable fitness levels that, despite admittedly “running on fumes” for much of the encounter, he prevailed over his rival precisely when the rallies were longest.
Over the contest (118 rallies), the average rally length was 16.1 strokes. When the point was won by ElShorbagy, this figure falls to 13.7. The average length of rallies won by Matthew, on the other hand, was 17.3, almost 2 shots per player higher. Furthermore, of those rallies which lasted 20 strokes or more, Matthew won 17 compared with ElShorbagy’s 10. Matthew won all three of the completed rallies lasting 40 strokes or more. Upon victory, Matthew urged the crowd to prolong their applause while he caught his breath–but after a marathon 102 minutes, the tactic had paid off.
# Early intercept vital
A strong predictor of success was a player’s position on court when making contact with the ball. An interception point further up the court is beneficial for numerous reasons: it allows a player to hit the ball aggressively into all four corners, gives their opponent less time to prepare, and is generally seen as an indicator of controlling the rally. In this topsy-turvy encounter, ElShorbagy comfortably won games 1 and 3, with Matthew triumphing in games 2, 4 and 5. Key to each player’s success was their ability not only to push up the court, but to force the other player deep.
Matthew started the match on the back foot, hitting more than two-thirds of shots from a deep position in game 1. At this point in the encounter, Matthew was playing 1 in 3 of his groundstrokes off the back wall (match average, 25.0%). ElShorbagy quickly took the first, before Matthew was able to gain a footing in the second. ElShorbagy’s dominance in game 3 is reflected emphatically in his intercept points. In this game, ElShorbagy took only 38.4% of shots from behind the service boxes (match average: 57.2%), and hit a staggering 44.2% of his shots from mid-court (match average: 25.7%). At his imperious best, ElShorbagy only let 12.8% of Matthew’s shots hit the back wall, well below his match average of 21.4%. During these same third game rallies, Matthew was forced to take 61.5% of his shots from deep, and could only push up the court on 20.5% of strokes, less than half the occasions for ElShorbagy.
As the contest reached its fourth and fifth games, however, ElShorbagy couldn’t maintain this high standard. Matthew was able to press higher in these final two games, playing 36.2% and 34.8% of shots from the mid-court region, respectively, his highest of the encounter. Across the match, the pattern is clear: when Matthew could limit ElShorbagy’s mid-court intercepts to 1 in 4, Matthew triumphed; and when he could reduce his own deep-lying strokes to under 50%, he won comfortably.
# Volleys key for ElShorbagy, by the by for Matthew
Another tactic to ensure the opponent has less time in between their strokes is to volley. In this respect, it is a metric linked closely to intercept points. But while both players benefitted from advanced intercepts and suffered from deep intercepts, the volleying pattern tells a different story. While ElShorbagy’s success was closely linked to how often he was able to volley, Matthew was not at all dependent on this tactic. Win or lose, Matthew’s figures remained close to his match average of 21.5% of shots volleyed, ranging only from 18.4% (game 4) to 24.1% (game 3, in which he lost convincingly). ElShorbagy’s game by game numbers, on the other hand, are strongly correlated with the outcome of each game. When ElShorbagy’s volley rate was high, as in game 1 (28.8%) and game 3 (33.7%), he won comfortably. In games 2, 4 and 5, however, Matthew limited ElShorbagy to a volley every five shots–and reaped the rewards.
# ElShorbagy undone by unforced errors
It seems strange that contests of such high standard ultimately boil down to that age-old decider of club thrash abouts – whoever makes fewer mistakes, wins. And while ElShorbagy (22) did indeed commit more errors than Matthew (17), this difference in itself is not hugely revelatory. What is far more instructive, is to compare when each player made unforced errors.
Matthew made an average of 3.4 unforced errors per game; ElShorbagy committed this sin only once more per game (4.4). But the real determiner was ElShorbagy’s inconsistency. When he put Matthew to the sword (games 1 and 3), he made just one unforced error across these 36 rallies. Unfortunately for ElShorbagy, he averaged 7 unforced errors per game across the remaining games. Matthew, on the other hand, was a model of consistency in comparison. He committed at least 2 errors each game, but even his poorest game only saw 5 errors. While ElShorbagy oscillated between sublime and unforgivable, Matthew’s steadiness saw him home.
# Small plays in big points
As sports are analysed in ever greater detail, the old adage that champions are champions because they win the “big points”–the points that “matter”–has been [called into question]. Yet while a spotlight on this assumption is welcome, the narrative of this match runs with the trope. In the business end of tight games, Matthew, three-time British Open winner, rose to the occasion. Why?
Having lost the first game, and trailing 9-7 in the second, Matthew knew he could not afford to concede a two game lead to his younger rival. ElShorbagy had two game balls to take the second, which, had he done so, would surely have seen the Egytpian progress to the final. Put simply, Matthew upped his game. In the remaining 15 rallies in game 2, Matthew hit 48 mid-court intercepts, compared with ElShorbagy’s 28. He made ElShorbagy return from deep on 83 occasions, compared with his 66; he forced ElShorbagy to hit off the back wall 29 times, but only did so himself on 20 occasions. Ultimately claiming the game 14-12, he made not a single unforced error in those business end points.
A similar tale unfolds deep into the fourth game. With the game locked at 6-6 (ElShorbagy 2-1 up), Matthew took 5 of the next 6 completed points to draw the match level. It may appear an act of mental fortitude, of sheer willpower to triumph, but in reality what allowed Matthew to square the contest was his ability to hit those metrics which ultimately prove decisive. In these 7 rallies, he hit twice as many shots from mid-court (22) as did ElShorbagy (11). He moved his opponent around the court, hitting 27 shots cross-court, compared with ElShorbagy’s 14. Once again, he made not a single unforced error.
And it is these underlying figures which show that ElShorbagy was not as close to claiming the fifth game as he might have appeared. With Matthew leading 8-3, ElShorbagy forced his way back into contention, winning four of the next five completed rallies. But unlike when Matthew took games 2 and 4, ElShorbagy’s string of points was not driven by an increase in performance metrics across the court. During these 9 points (4 lets), it was in fact Matthew who had the more impressive numbers. Matthew (32) had twice ElShorbagy’s mid-court intercepts (16) and fewer deep returns (38 to 49). Despite volleying bringing ElShorbagy success in games 1 and 3, it was in fact Matthew who volleyed more in these clutch points (16 to 13). ElShorbagy may have conjured 4 winners, but Matthew once again made 0 unforced errors. In short, ElShorbagy was overperforming. It was only a matter of time before a regression to match his numbers.
Matthew waited out this regression, and took 2 of the last 3 points to claim the contest. In front of the post-match microphone he may have considered himself “lucky” to get across the line. But on rewatching, he would have known luck had nothing to do with it.