Sometime in the middle of the men’s ToC quarterfinal between Gregory Gaultier and Amr Shabana, I notice her, a lanky dark-haired teenager slouched down in her folding chair as she fiddles with her iPod. She’s barely watching the amazing squash a foot or so from her seat, but who can blame her? An hour or so earlier, she was on the same court beating a woman over twice her age, the thirty-nine year old Latasha Khan. Nour El Sherbini deserves to slouch a little and listen to Rihanna like any sixteen year old would.
However. When El Sherbini is on court, you just wouldn’t guess that she’s sixteen. No slouching there. She uses her height to full effect, easily stretching for short drops, popping over a cross court, and winding up for a powerful back hand. But it’s the overhead volley drop to both corners that is her specialty. She just reaches up her racquet with a long arm and either flicks or powers the ball down into the nick, lying it so flat that her opponents have no chance of scooping it back up. It is a truly beautiful thing to watch and I think I gasp audibly every time she does it. Her opponents must groan.
El Sherbini worked hard and focused intently to get through the first and second rounds of the women’s draw of the Tournament of Champions, beating Samantha Teran of Mexico in four, and then Latasha Khan (US) in three. As I’ve mentioned about Sherbini previously, she displays a focused composure, even after losing points, that players much older don’t always possess. Her face rarely displays much emotion one way or the other, and if there’s anything going on inside, she’s good at hiding it.
Happily, she doesn’t feel the need to hide her personality off the court. It’s friendly, approachable, and the game face is completely gone, replaced with one of a teenager excited to be in New York Cityfor the first time. After her five game loss (6-11,11-5, 11-5,7-11,11-4) to Natalie Grinham in the Semis last night, she sits down with me on a bench beneath the bleachers to discuss the match.
The first two games had gone incredibly fast, and the scores almost mirrored each other, albeit inversely, as Sherbini took the first game 11-5, and then Grinham grabbed the second in 11-6. “What happened?” I asked.
“I played Natalie last week and lost in three,” she says, a sweat-panted leg folded beneath her. “But this time, I was ready. All my balls were right. There were not many errors. I was controlling the game.”
And then? And then she let Grinham control the second, El Sherbini concedes. “If the ball gets to the middle of the court, Natalie drops very well.” She frowns. “I was putting too much in the middle. And then when I lost that game, I was very nervous in the third game. I wasn’t playing well and I put a lot into the tin.”
“Grinham was taking away your favorite shots,” I observed. I had noticed in the third game that Natalie was lobbing the ball higher, out of El Sherbini’s long reach, as well as hitting her rails a little lower, so that Nour couldn’t come down on the ball as she had in the first game. El Sherbini nods. “Raneem El Weleily was coaching me after that game. She beat Grinham in the Greenwich Open (the week before). ‘You have to be at T,’ she said. ‘You have to make a faster pace.’ So I was very focused in the fourth game to win. I put the ball in the back of the court. I was dropping from the back.”
“And then on your second game ball, at 10-7, you won with your favorite shot,” I recalled. It had been a very relaxed volley drop to the right nick. “I was excited for you.”
El Sherbini grimaces a bit. “But I lost concentration in the fifth game. When you see the game is running away from you, I have to be nervous. Natalie makes a lot of lobs and she runs a lot. She wanted to make me get tired.” Were you? I asked her. She shrugged. “A little, not much. But Natalie is older and more experienced. Next time I have to be more concentrated. Not make a lot of errors.” She shakes her head and laughs a bit. “But I don’t know yet.”
Well, what I know is that I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Nour El Sherbini’s matches going forward, along with those of her other young countrywomen I’d seen play at the ToC, Kanzy Emad El DeFrawy and Nour El Tayeb. In the meantime, I’ll be watching the twenty year old Dipika Pallikal take on thirty-three year old Natalie Grinham this evening in the women’s finals at 6:30. After watching Grinham adjust her game with El Sherbini, cover the court so splendidly, and make such wise shot selections, I just don’t think she can lose. In contrast, Pallikal runs so hot and cold on the court; she seem a bit sloppy one moment and absolutely brilliant and sharp the next. If she’s more of the latter, it’ll be an interesting match. Fingers and racquets crossed.