Ramy Ashour is a showman. This I decided while watching the finals of the Tournament of Champions last night. He comes onto the court prancing like a race horse in his silky green sweatpants, bouncing the ball from his racquet to the wall all around the court before his opponent enters, the less flashy but supremely talented world #1 Nick Matthew.
While they warm up, I notice their physical similarities. Close to the same height and build. Lean but strong. I’d seen a few other ToC games over the weekend and the differences in match-ups were often more pronounced (Palmer appeared twice the muscle heft as Illingworth). Ashour and Matthew also both seem incredibly fit and hit the ball extremely crisply. I was able to grab a prime (and free!) standing spot by the front right corner and I keep flinching every time the ball comes shooting at me.
And then the match begins. First games always seem a little rough to me – and not entirely indicative of how the rest of the match will proceed. Players are feeling each other out, getting their nerves in check. Ashour’s left hand seems to talk to him—it’s lifted in the air about chest height and while Ashour waits to return the first serve, the hand pushes down a few times, as if saying ‘calm down, Ramy.’ I’m sure it was saying other things as well, but I don’t speak Egyptian-hand fluently.
I also can’t help noticing Ashour’s feet. He walks around on his toes the first few points, hardly letting his heels touch the floor. In fact, after winning an early point, he does this dance step from front of court back to the service box, swaggering his hips and almost en pointe. Is this what it means to walk like an Egyptian? Seriously, maybe it’s to loosen himself up, maybe it’s a reminder to his feet to stay ready, but it’s not a subtle move. A lesser opponent may be distracted by Ashour’s antics between points, but Matthew is as cool as Ashour is hot. In contrast to Ashour’s fist-pumping and finger pointing, Matthew only ocassionally wipes the sweat from his brow. If he’s frustrated by his quick first game loss (11-3), he doesn’t show it. Whereas Ashour is clearly peeved when the second game gets away from him (7-11) and stays out on the court between games, flogging himself with a battery of shots and getting berated by his hand.
As a novice pro squash watcher, it takes me until game three for it to sink in how differently these guys play. It’s almost stereo-typical. Matthew is the cool Englishman to Ashour’s hot Egyptian. Matthew often plays length, trying to force Ashour out of position, while Ashour goes for every short shot and combination thereof that he can create an opportunity for. It’s steady, safe, old-school style to the risky but totally new and thrilling manner of play. However, I’m struck by the intensity of the shots by both men. Compared to the matches I saw over the weekend (I stupidly played instead of watched squash during the week), this one is all about speed. And it’s not just Ashour who’s looking to take the ball early; both racquets are flying at mid-court, jamming and flicking at the ball. Every shot feels like everything depends on it; how they can keep up this pace for point after point, I do not know. But clearly they’re both in fantasic shape. (If you have the secret to their stamina, please let me know.)
After that second game, it’s abundantly clear that Ashour’s hand will not let him lose. It may have told his right hand to go for every winner it can, because even though Ashour tins a bunch of balls, he wins most points by smashing the ball as low as it will go without tinning. And maybe he speaks to the ball as well, because unlike Matthew’s short shots, Ashour’s lie down and stay down. The only way Matthew stays in the game is to get Ashour to the back, but like a bad puppy he refuses to stay there.
Deadly, is what a friend called Ashour. He also called the match score correctly before it began, declaring that Ashour would win in four. Even though everyone watching pretty much knew Ashour had it sewn up in the fourth, we all hoped Matthew would come back to save match point as his opponent did the day before. Perhaps that five-gamer did him in, but I still think Ashour would’ve won. His heat incinerated pretty much anything Matthew gave him. Will Matthew, and any other contender, change up their game next time they face Ashour? It’ll be interesting to see. All I know for sure is that I don’t just want to walk like an Egyptian; I want to play like one, too.