Deep into one of Thursday evening’s women’s semifinal matches at the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, a woman sitting near me yelped loudly with disappointment. One of the players on court had made an error, losing the point. Usually, many other spectators are vocal enough to make it a group groan, but in this instance the crowd had quieted and her voice broke the hushed silence. “Sorry, sorry!” she whispered, a bit mortified. But I quickly smiled at her and nodded. I could relate. That was usually me apologizing.
I love to see other women utterly enthralled and involved by watching a sport. And both semifinal matches had me cheering and clapping, stomping and eye-rolling, as well. The evening began early with Raneem El Welily (EGY, rank 2) and Laura Massaro (ENG, rank 3). So early, that my end-of-day dash from work involving two subway trains and a game of dodge-the-Metro-North-train-commuter made me miss all but the last few points of the first game. I was still breathing heavily as El Welily took those points to an 11-7 win.
But I barely had time to breathe normally during the second game. El Welily was doing what she does best–nicking and boasting and dropping balls from everywhere on the court. She looked relaxed and her touch was impeccable. Massaro, bless her, was undoubtedly trying to figure out what to do to staunch the onslaught, but I wouldn’t have blamed her if she grabbed a beer from one of the vendors and told El Welily ‘this one’s for you.’ It was over in something like five or six minutes, 11-2. So, two easy breezy games for El Welily.
‘Not so fast,’ Massaro seemed to say at the start of game three. By getting the first point out of the gate, she knew she could take El Welily’s confidence down a notch. Sure enough, El Welily tins two in a row and Massaro is up three zip.
El Welily is too good and experienced these days to lay down and stay down. She pops back to 3-3, and then the battle really gets going. El Welily’s weapons are her quick drops and nicks. Massaro’s are her deep rails and patience to strike in the right moment. The two are almost point for point until El Welily edges up to 9-8, and then to 10-8 for her first match ball. And then Massaro calmly crosses the ball from a back corner and El Welily can’t get it up above the tin.
So second match ball. It’s a long point, and a let is awarded, reviewed, and confirmed. Again, Massaro crosses the ball, this time with a wicked drop to the right. And it’s even again at 10-10, the refs reminding anyone who doesn’t know that they must win by two. Massaro, on a roll, gets game ball at 11-10, but El Welily steps up with a beautiful passing shot down the right wall to even it yet again, 11-11. But she tins a volley drop for 11-12, and then tins again for the game to Massaro. 13-11.
I can’t help sighing.
“Who are you rooting for,” asks a man near me.
“Oh, Raneem. I can’t help myself,” I say. I’ve lost the other half of my dream final—a rematch between her and Nicol David, but I’d still like to see El Welily go the distance.
And she doesn’t have much further to go in the 4th game. Despite another strong start by Massaro in the first few points, El Welily re-locates her touch. She executes some gorgeous drops, and cross courts, and volley drops, and even a less predictable passing rail down the right wall that makes me exclaim ‘smart!’ While they’re dead even at 5-5, El Welily pulls ahead and stays ahead to 8-6, 9-6, and then 10-6 and match ball. I can’t help thinking of El Welily’s last game against Nicol David, with that exact same score. ‘You’ve been here before!’ I warn her, ‘No repeats!’
And, thankfully, there won’t be. El-Welily wins 11-6 on a rightfully rewarded stroke point. And when the M.C. asks her how she’s changed her game from last year, she could’ve also been answering how it changed from last month. “I had to be more focused,” she answers. “More relaxed. To play my game.” Of course, it also helps to play a different opponent. . . . one probably a bit beat from a five game match the night before. But this one is all El Welily’s.
Speaking of five games . . . . that’s what Nour El Sherbini (EGY, rank 4) had to get through with Nour El Tayeb in the quarters to make it onto the court tonight with Alison Waters (ENG, rank 5). But El Sherbini is all of nineteen, and her joints and muscles are still in teenage territory. She certainly doesn’t look tired as the first game gets underway. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her in action, and Nour has so much going for her. Power. Finesse. Court coverage. A sad puppy pout when the ref won’t see her side.
I’m also increasingly impressed by the 30-year-old Waters. She kept her cool with Nicol David, and she’s super fast and strong, as well. I like the way she drives the ball down, like the slice of a knife. If any of us were out there, we’d be in slivers. But, as a friend reports, El Sherbini is ‘fearless’ and one of her own most dangerous shots is her lovely backhand volley drops that make me suck in air as they just sink exactly where they should. The points go back and forth a bit in the first game, as they get used to one another, but despite some tricky head fake shots by Waters, El Sherbini wins the first game 11-8 with a right wall drive.
Losing by a mere three points isn’t a shabby start, however, and Waters uses her years of experience to keep switching it up. She uses her head a lot, literally, to point El Sherbini one way while she puts the ball the other. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it looks a little silly from the stands. Then again, if I tried it maybe I’d win a few matches myself. Or hurt my neck….. Waters keeps it neck and neck with El Sherbini at 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, 10-10! And then wraps it up with two quick points to tie games one to one.
El Sherbini seems rightly miffed by this and if someone told her in between games to play ‘her game,’ they were smart to do so. She lays down a quick and purely El Sherbini-esque game that frustrates Waters so much that she kicks a ball she misses. That doesn’t help, and El Sherbini wins the 3rd, 11-5.
Waters’ anger seems to serve her well, however. With a bit more focus, she gets slicier and dicier, zooming the ball into every corner of the court. They’re both fantastic retrievers, covering the court expertly, and when the pace quickens, it’s almost impossible to know who will crash, miss, or missfire first. Waters appears as if she’s in better shape, but El Sherbini is almost shockingly agile for such a tall girl. Then again, one of Waters’ specialties in driving her opponents back so that she can control the T. After El Sherbini serves 6-6, Waters has a four point run up to 10-6 for game ball . . . which she almost, almost gives away with a few misses. But Waters can be as tenacious as Nicol David. Under pressure, she can put the ball away with sheer certainty. She wins the 4th 12-10.
While both women are gleaming with exertion by now, neither looks tired. In fact, both look ready for a fight. Albeit polite. Early in the game it’s close, and it’s when El Sherbini loses the point for 4-4 that my row-mate yelps. But perhaps El Sherbini senses a supportive soul, because the next four points are hers, and she pumps her fist as one of those is won with a left wall drive. Waters, however, sees that as a challenge and she makes a series of drops (one so flukey that Waters appears to apologize) to bring it back to 8-8.
And then things get serious again. Waters trips or slips going for a deep right rail, asks for a let and is refused. And even worse, she gets in the way of El Sherbini’s next shot and El Sherbini is awarded a stroke. 10-8! But in an almost repeat of game two, Waters turns up her tenacity volume and puts a ball down the right wall two times for two points, and it’s 10-10. El Sherbini answers this with a ball into the back left corner and another fist pump. 11-10. Her third match point.
This is killing me.
Waters crosses the ball for 11-11, then lays down a killer corner shot 12-11, and . . . then . . . puts it away again for game, match ball. 13-11. Five games. One fantastic match that honestly could’ve gone either way. Who’s gonna be tired on Friday? I am. But if you see me yawn, just nod and smile. See you at the finals with Waters and El Welily, oh, and I guess a few guys….