This article was started in a subway train and will end in a bar. Because ToC has taken its toll on more than just the players. Maybe twenty-two year old players – er, writers can burn the candle til two a.m. every night, show up to work, and then watch and write all night, but I could use a good night’s sleep. So this is the end of the line, guys.
And it was the end of the line finally for a history-making ToC player who poured her heart and sweat and everything she had into the glass court in Vanderbilt Hall. As with Cinderella, her time at the ball had ended. The reason? The deadly accurate, extraordinarily executed, and patiently sought shots of a twenty-year-old Egyptian, Nour El Sherbini. This long-legged young woman — so athletically unassuming and sweet-natured off the court — at times made the points she won look easy. I knew they weren’t.
Her opponent, twenty-two year-old American Amanda Sobhy on her first trip to the finals of the Tournament of Champions (and the first trip by any American to the finals) had out swung, out shot, and out maneuvered both the winner and the finalist of last year’s ToC. She had earned ‘Tenacious’ as her middle name, if she wanted it.
But Sobhy needed more than a healthy dose of tenacity to overcome El Sherbini.
Certainly, the first game quickly showed Sobhy that. While she had started out shaky the night before, playing another young Egyptian, Nouran Gohar, Gohar had her own shakes to contend with.
Nour El Sherbini, despite being only twenty years old, has six years of pro circuit experience to calm her nerves and perfect her already gorgeous game. I’d seen her play a few ToC’s ago (& wrote about it here) and she had many of the shots she has now, but also lots of nerves, and certainly not the patience she puts to good use today. It was quickly apparent that El Sherbini was going to rule this match if she didn’t get in her own way.
And with a series of beautifully accurate drops and corner shots, El Sherbini quickly showed that she would be very hard to beat. The first game was over within minutes. 11-4 El Sherbini.
You gotta give credit to Sobhy, though. The next two games, she fought with everything she had. Or rather, with all that El Serbini allowed her to have. Sobhy moves the ball around the court extraordinarily well and she focused on keeping the ball out of El Sherbini’s firing range, as well as creating an opening for her own shots. She was able to stay within a point or two of El Sherbini for most of the second game, and by playing keep away in the close final points, she surged to game point and finished with a drop to win it 11-9.
I’d like to say that it was easy – or easier – after that for Sobhy. But El Sherbini put her on the defensive as soon as they got back on the court. She quickly racked up the points to 5-0 with everything from a lovely backhand drop to a crushing volley kill shot. To be honest, I was amazed when Sobhy scraped herself slowly back. Everytime she let a ball get loose in the court, El Sherbini just crushed it. But El Sherbini seemingly got a bit rattled by Sobhy’s slow advance, so she gave Sobhy some loose balls, as well. And a bit of confusion over her losing a point by not being ready to return serve, ended up costing her another point. Sobhy pulled up to tie the game at 8-8, and again at 9-9, and when she won the next point on a deep rail, it looked like she might have this game, too.
But El Sherbini refused to let her. She made a passing shot on Sobhy’s forehand, then put the ball deep in the left corner, for her own game point. Sobhy tinned a forehand boast and the game was El Sherbini’s 12-10
El Sherbini came back onto the court before the time was up. She often is back on early; perhaps to show confidence, perhaps impatience. For whatever reason, it works. She again strung together a series of volley drops, passing shots, and crushing shots. Sobhy got a point early, but then didn’t get another until El Sherbini had six. For every closing shot that Sobhy grinded to get, El Sherbini gracefully got another, often patiently lengthening a point so that she could line up the perfect winning shot.
Sobhy got closest after she was awarded a stroke point for 7-8. But Sobhy’s cautiousness may have harmed more than helped. While she saved a match point with a lovely and deep cross court, El Sherbini was on careful offense — if there is such a thing. She didn’t end it with a showy backhand volley drop, but rather with a classy rail, very close to the wall.
The crowd rose to their feet — for both players. For Sobhy, it wasn’t quite the fairytale ending that she (and we) couldn’t help dreaming of. But she has many more years to make dreams come true. For Nour El Sherbini, the dream is now. She’s the well-deserved winner of the 2016 ToC.
Cheers to another wonderful ToC. It’s time to go home.