By RJ Mitchell
James Willstrop believes that Marwan ElShorbagy’s triumph at the CIB PSA World Tour Finals should be viewed as confirmation of the fact that he is the real deal when it comes to the game’s major titles.
The younger ElShorbagy brother defeated World No.2 Ali Farag in the semi-finals at the Mall of Arabia and then trounced defending champion Karim Abdel Gawad in straight games in a 47-minute final to claim the biggest title of his career.
For former World No.1 Willstrop, himself a losing finalist at the World Tour Finals back in 2017, that win proves ‘The Jackal’ is now a clear and present danger to the game’s top players.
The Yorkshireman has played ElShorbagy on four occasions – with two wins apiece – and provided a fascineting dissection of the subtleties that made ElShorbagy such a menace in Cairo last week.
The victory also ensured that the World Tour Finals title stayed in Egyptian hands for the fourth successive year, while ElShorbagy picked up a $49,875 winners’ cheque, the biggest in the history of the World Tour Finals and of his career.
“Marwan is a class act and his victory at the World Tour Finals is no
surprise to those that know squash,” said Willstrop.
“To beat Karim in the final in straight games and in just over 40 minutes is a fabulous result given how strong Karim is on Egyptian soil and also the fact he was defending champion. But I think this isn’t an announcement of how good Marwan is and what he can do, it is more of a confirmation.
“Marwan has been around the top of the game for a while now and of course he has made a World Open final and a semi-final, but to win the CIB World Tour Finals is a fantastic result for him. You look at his recent form since squash has returned and he beat Ali Farag in Manchester and then he did it again in a fantastic semi in Cairo and very few people beat Ali Farag twice in a row, he is just so hard to beat.
“But to then come back out for the final on Saturday night and take Karim out 3-0, well that is quite a performance. I don’t know if it will mean Marwan can go on and impose a stranglehold and we must factor in the fact that his brother Mohamed was absent in Cairo, but what it does suggest is that Marwan has made improvements during the suspension.
“So, whatever way you look at it this is a huge win for him and probably the biggest of his career and he will rightly take a lot of confidence from it and Marwan certainly has a platform to build on for the rest of the season.”
ElShorbagy’s return to the fray at the Manchester Open in September saw Marwan record a victory over World No.2 Ali Farag, in an epic five-game quarter-final before he lost a tight four-gamer to Gawad in the semis.
But an increased use of height and greater dynamism in his movement seemed to hint that ElShorbagy had put the COVID-19 enforced suspension of squash to particularly good use.
While Willstrop won his first two PSA World Tour encounters with the Egyptian, the Egyptian has been triumphant in the most recent meetings, with the last encounter coming at the British Open in 2018 when ElShorbagy won in straight games.
For his part, Willstrop admits that such are the subtleties of ElShorbagy’s game, it can be hard to know why you are losing until it is too late.
“It’s difficult to put your finger on why Marwan is so good. We haven’t played for a couple of years now and where you can apply certain characteristics towards the rest of the top guys, Marwan’s game is more subtle and tougher to label,” said the World No.20.
Willstrop (right) takes on ElShorbagy (left)
“For example, if you look at Mohamed then he is famed for his pace and power, Gawd is a supreme shotmaker and Farag’s movement is tremendous but with Marwan you can be playing him and saying to yourself: ‘Why I am I losing here, what is he doing to me?’, he has that subtlety.
“But what I will say about Marwan is he does everything to the highest level, he hits all the marks in terms of his game, his accuracy, shots and yes he is wily and clever with his game and from what I can see from Manchester and Cairo, he has come back and is moving that bit better and perhaps using a bit more height in his game.
“But as I mentioned, he now has a fantastic platform and the confidence and belief that winning the World Tour Finals will have given him will, I am sure, be very positive for him.”
But Willstrop says that Marwan wasn’t the only one making waves in Cairo last week, saying: “I think Joel Makin is probably the other guy who will have taken an awful lot from Cairo. We all knew that no one was ever going to beat Joel easily, but to come out at your first World Tour Finals and beat Tarek Momen, the reigning World Champion and also to beat Paul Coll in the group stages was tremendous.
“It is just a mammoth task to stop him getting that ball back and finding a way to be accurate and clever enough with your shots to put him in places that nullify his athleticism and his ferocious speed and movement.
“But what Joel has proven last week is that he is now a supreme threat to the very best players and he has clearly developed his accuracy, and for Joel his win over Paul will have given him a tremendous boost.
“It will now be interesting to see how he takes things on in the next tournament at the Egyptian Open later this week, but again what a platform Joel has given himself with his performances last week.”
Looking back at his own near miss at the World Tour Finals three years ago, the Yorkshireman remains sanguine about a week that he rates as amongst the most memorable of his incredible career despite his defeat in the final to Mohamed ElShorbagy.
Willstrop recalled: “It meant an awful lot for me to be in the world’s top eight players and to make the World Tour Finals and be in there competing against the best. So, personally speaking, I feel that the World Tour Finals is a massive tournament because to win it you have to beat the best.
Willstrop (left) takes on Mohamed ElShorbagy (right) during the 2017-18 PSA World Tour Finals
“Obviously, I made the final back in 2017 when I lost to Mohamed ElShorbagy, but I have no regrets there. I was just delighted to make the finals that year after coming back from hip surgery and I think I scraped in as last man.
“If someone had said to me I’d make the final and produce the level of squash I did to make it at the beginning of the week, I would have shaken their hand off I promise you.
“So, looking back I have only good memories. I had an unbelievable week, I played some good squash and it was one of the most memorable weeks of my career. For me personally speaking, second was a great achievement given where I had to come from to get there.”
Looking forward to this weekend’s Egyptian Open, Willstrop is hungry for more competitive action after a solid showing in Manchester last month.
He said: “I am planning to be in Cairo this weekend for the Egyptian Open. Obviously you have two [COVID-19] tests to go through to get there but my intention is to be there and be competing and I’m looking forward to it.
“I was really happy with how the Manchester Open went given that I had virtually no match play in my preparation and to get a solid victory [3-0 v Tayyab Aslam] in the opening round under my belt was satisfying.
“But what really pleased me was the 30 minutes I got in against Mohamed in the second round. To be in there competing with him and taking him to a tie-break in the third and then suffering no adverse effects physically was positive for me.
“So, I was really grateful to have been back playing in Manchester and I will be travelling to Cairo very much looking forward to playing and hopefully building on my performances at Manchester.”