They bumped hips, grabbed each other’s waists, and slid by thigh to thigh. In another space in New York City, these women’s movements would be just right for late-night in a club downtown. But this was two in the afternoon in a glass squash court in mid-town.
A few nights back, I had missed a history-making match as the barely-out-of-college U.S. squash star Amanda Sobhy took out last year’s ToC champion, Egyptian phenom Raneem El Welily to advance to the quarter-finals of the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions. It was a huge upset, and I was not going to miss Sobhy’s next match on Tuesday afternoon against last year’s ToC finalist, Alison Waters.
But first up in the quarters was World Number One Laura Massaro of England on court with the eighteen year old Egyptian, Nouran Gohar. I wasn’t familiar with the World Number Ten, Gohar, but I was curious to see Massaro play and see what Sobhy would be up against if she got to the semis.
Turns out, I did see what Sobhy would be up against, only it wouldn’t be whom I thought. As soon as Gohar began racking up the points in the first game, I realized that this was not going to be a piece of cake for Massaro.
Massaro plays very consistant, well-educated, well-executed squash. She covers every inch of the court, has amazing instincts, and seems to have control of the pacing volume, so that if an opponent turns it in a way not to her liking, she cranks it up or down accordingly. That, and she knows most every shot in the book.
But the Egyptians know how to entertain, and Gohar had an electricity to her shot-making (cross-courts and volley drops and trickle boasts and cocoa pops – okay, I made that one up) that was seriously fun to watch, but deadly, too. She and Massaro traded points to 5-5 and then Gohar put together a run of points to 9-5. Yikes. At least that’s what I imagine Massaro was thinking. I mean, 9-5!
But instead of panicking, Massaro dug down in her number one body and mind and pulled out four points, dodged a game ball by Gohar, and then got the game herself when the ref refused a let to Gohar. 12-10 Massaro.
The second game was almost as close as the first, only in this one Massaro didn’t let Gohar get more than a point or two ahead. Both were hitting deep, moving each other around, until they were ready to pounce. And both were making some beautiful drops and volley drops. Some worked, some didn’t. They both have great instincts. And patience. At 10-9, Gohar hit deep, deep, deep, until ‘wham!’ she whipped her racquet around like a sword and the ball sliced down so fast that Massaro had no chance. 11-9 Gohar.
Massaro had to be trying to figure out how to stop this girl. Cutting confidence is always a good way to go, but that meant racking up more than a few points in a row, and that wasn’t happening. Until it did at 6-5, then 7-5, then 8-5, and then Massaro wrong-footed Gohar and Gohar, desperate to get back a few points, fumbled instead, and it was quickly 10-5. Massaro dropped a ball from a ways back and that was that for game three. 11-5 Massaro.
That could have been a turning point. I’m sure Massaro hoped it was. But instead Gohar came back for game four on fire. She grabbed the volume control from Massaro and cranked it up to high, like a teenager does when a favorite song comes on. And her song was on. Of course, Massaro wasn’t just standing by wondering ‘what is it with teenagers these days?’ She waited until Gohar’s solo ended at 3-0 and took advantage of a tinned volley drop to get back into the game. Pretty soon they were back to neck and neck and hip check to hip check. Going on four furiously played games, both players were moving a millisecond or so slower out of each other’s way and Gohar was awarded two stroke points. Another of her songs must’ve come on again at 8-8, because she lay down two absolutely gorgeous backhand drives and then sewed it up with one more for 11-8.
I tried at first not to keep score in the 5th and final game. I just wanted to watch some really good squash. If this was my only match to watch of the day, I’d be a very happy squash fan. So I just made some minor observations, like: when Gohar winds up, she can crush the ball when she lets go. And, Massaro is my height, but I swear that her arms and legs look twice as long as mine. And questions like, why would it ever be a good idea to use the hit-off-the-backwall shot??
But at 4-4, I just can’t help writing the score down again. They are doing a lot of bumping into one another, some of which looks on purpose. Despite their fatigue, there are some long, patient points that seem to be saying, I’m right here with you. And they are, until 8 all. Again. Massaro muffs a ball in the back corner. 9-8. Then she gifts Gohar a stroke point. 10-8. Match point. Gohar bumps into Massaro and doesn’t get the let she asks for. 10-9. Another match point. It’s fast. Massaro goes up for a drop, swings . . . and gets tin. Nohar wins. 10-12, 11-9, 5-11, 11-8, 11-9 She looks like she might burst with happiness, or shock. “I am so so so happy,” she tells the tournament emcee. “Laura’s beaten me like six times before. To beat her in a match like this, I’m really happy.”
And I can’t help feeling really happy for her. Massaro made her work for every point.
So this is what Amanda Sobhy will be up against on Wednesday evening in the semi finals of the ToC. A player who doesn’t give up, has powerful drives and gorgeous finesse, and moves around a court like she’s more on it than off. In short, a player not unlike Sobhy. It will be a match not to miss, that’s for sure.