By ALAN THATCHER
It was like old times as England veteran James Willstrop rolled back the years to achieve a stunning victory on the opening day of the Canary Wharf Classic against Egypt’s Mohamed Abouelghar, who is 10 years his junior.
On a day laced with nostalgia, three more of the game’s elder statesmen bade farewell to London’s favourite tournament as former world top 10 players Daryl Selby, Borja Golan and Mathieu Castagnet bowed out of the competition.
Four-times winner Willstrop, the 38-year-old former world number one, produced a vintage display of precision hitting on the opening day of action at a packed East Wintergarden venue to triumph 11-6, 11-8 in the best of three format.
Willstrop, the current World No.24, won the inaugural Canary Wharf Classic final against Thierry Lincou back in 2004. In front of an adoring crowd, he showed no signs of slowing down as, almost 18 years later, he came out of the blocks firing on all cylinders to control the play and nullify the attacking threats of his hugely talented opponent Abouelghar.
In his post-match interview, watched by long-term rival Nick Matthew, Willstrop said: “It’s interesting to see Nick sitting behind that corner of the court,” where Willstrop famously collapsed in heap, suffering from cramp, at the end of a brutal battle lasting two hours and four minutes here in 2010.
Willstrop was delighted to receive a late call-up to play after various withdrawals and was pleased with his performance.
“It was good. I don’t think I had a chance on the volley. He just didn’t give me any chances. I couldn’t go in short when I wanted to.”
Abouelghar sensed that the cool court conditions might work in Willstrop’s favour and the game developed into a master-class of the kind of relentlessly tight, precision squash that took Willstrop to the top of the world rankings almost 10 years ago.
Willstrop added: “I just had to be very clever and selective when I went in short and I’m very pleased to be playing. That was amazing. I was in the reserves and when you get the call about Canary Wharf it’s special and I’ve been here about 300 times. I think this is almost the most special in a way because I wasn’t going to get in and I thought I’d missed out.”
Asked about his ability to continue playing at such a high standard, he revealed: “It’s so exciting to be through to another round. I think athletes are going on a bit longer in general. You look at Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal and you’re seeing it happen. We’ve had a lot of advice over the 20 years from the period when England Squash got the funding to make sure that we got help from sports scientists and physios. That kind of support wasn’t there before.”
Later in the evening, when discussing the impending retirement plans of his three fellow travellers, Willstrop confided: “I’ll just take it week by week.”
On this form he seems sure to make England‘s Commonwealth Games team in Birmingham next summer.
Willstrop will now face French number one Gregoire Marche in the second round on Tuesday, while he is joined in the last 16 by compatriots Adrian Waller and Declan James, who both scored upset wins against Malaysian Eain Yow Ng and German Raphael Kandra, respectively.
Waller, the World No.28, showed tenacity and fighting spirit to edge a tightly contested affair 11-9 in the third game, having witnessed an early 1-0 game advantage slip away.
“I imposed my game quite early in the match, but credit to him, he came back with a brilliant game plan and got back in front,” said Waller afterwards.
“In a best-of-three you have less margin for error. It’s a lot shorter and I think mentally it’s different, you will see everyone approach it more cautiously.”
James produced one of his best performances of the past year as he came from a game down to defeat Kandra, the German sitting 13 places higher on the World Rankings, 7-11, 12-10, 11-3, coasting home in the third game thanks to some superb shot placement and a devastating finishing touch.
“I’ve just been desperate to play matches,” admitted James afterwards. “I feel like in the last two years I’ve had like 10-15 matches and these guys that are in the top 10 and 15 have been playing a lot more than me because I haven’t been winning, it’s not been good enough.”
When asked about the work he has been putting in with coach Nick Matthew, he responded by saying: “Coming here this week, I’ve been training hard. It’s not good enough to just come up and win a first or second round, I need to be pushing to the next level.”
It was a day of hellos and goodbyes as new faces Yow, Iker Pajares, Youssef Soliman, Baptiste Masotti and wild card Charlie Lee all made their first appearances at the East Wintergarden. All five admitted that playing before a full house at Canary Wharf had always been one of their big squash dreams.
Yow failed to make the most of his opportunities against Waller, but Pajares and Soliman produced victories that almost certainly made it the final curtain at Canary Wharf for Castagnet and Golan.
Masotti and Lee were paired together and it was the impressive Frenchman who gained the victory that will put him up against Tarek Momen in the second round. Lee, however, was far from outclassed, playing constructive, intelligent squash. A handful of missed chances coupled with a few errors were part of the equation, as was the high quality squash produced by Masotti.
World No.319 Lee caught the Frenchman by surprise in the early stages as he took a 7-2 lead in the first. However, the experience of the World No.20 soon kicked in as he went through the gears to take the win in straight-games.
Masotti will face former World Champion Tarek Momen in round two and he is looking forward to the challenge. He also spoke graciously about his opponent, saying: “Charlie is one of the nicest guys on Tour. He always has a smile on his face and is always fair.
“His family are doing so many things for squash (father Danny was looking on) and it was a pleasure to play him, even if I didn’t know what to expect. At the start my arm wasn’t moving well.
“One of my best friends, Mathieu Castagnet, won it here and he always tells me good stories about playing here and the atmosphere. In my head it was a goal to play here and I really enjoyed my match and I want to win as many matches as I can this week.
“I lost 3-2 with Asal at the U.S. Open. I was 2-1 up and I lost, even if I was playing well. It’s a bad performance if I lose and I hope to play my best performances here this week.
“Tarek is one of the best in the world. I’ve played him a few times in training, but I won’t reveal my strategy. I will do my best tomorrow and try to give everyone a good one.”
The 39-year-old announced before the event that this would be his last Canary Wharf appearance. Selby put up a good fight but was unable to get past a resilient Parker, who dug in to take the win 11-9, 11-9 in 25 minutes.
Selby said: “It was one of those annoying matches to be honest because I always felt like I was in there. I knew George would be a little bit edgy and I was trying to use my experience to switch it up and make him feel uncomfortable.
“I left too many balls in the middle and it wasn’t the best quality match that we have played. I was probably a bit edgy too, knowing it was my last Canary Wharf opportunity. I was desperate to win to try and play one more match. Fair play to George and hopefully he can kick on from here.”
“Daryl is such a tricky player. Every shot is slightly different so I was really struggling with my short game. I managed to get stuck in a bit when it got tough and got away with it.
“Every time I left it a bit short, it was so awkward, it just felt slow but it’s his quality. It was really slow getting back to fitness and I struggled during lockdown. Not having a thing to train for, I really struggled with and as soon as I found out we had a date for a tournament, that gave me a kick. Hopefully in the next year I’ll be pushing on in the rankings.
“I grew up watching Daryl, Nick [Matthew] and Jimbo [Willstrop]. They inspired me to start playing so to be able to compete with these guys like I have over the past few years is a great experience. Daryl is such a humble and nice guy and I wish him the best after squash.”
Spain’s Iker Pajares prevailed against 2016 winner Mathieu Castagnet to secure a second-round match against World No.1 Ali Farag, with the Egyptian searching for his first Canary Wharf Classic title this week after falling short in the final to Mohamed ElShorbagy last year.
“Mathieu used to be one of my favourite players and when he won the tournament here, he won that final without making any mistakes,” said Pajares. “I learned a lot from this match and it feels amazing to finally beat him.
“I’ve been a bit unlucky with the draws and I’ve been meeting all the top players in early rounds. Tomorrow I’m playing Ali Farag, but it’s best-of-three and I take a lot of confidence from today.
“I don’t know what they do in Egypt – they are so good and so strong. I want to learn from them and especially the small details of why they are better. Tomorrow, best-of-three, I feel very ready and I’ve been working hard, so who knows.”
Castagnet was upbeat despite suffering defeat on his 35th birthday. He said: “I am still moving pretty well and I’m still enjoying playing, but I probably won’t get into the next Canary Wharf in March if my ranking goes down.”
While Selby and Castagnet’s departures were cushioned by generous applause, Golan stormed off court after blowing a solid lead in the third game against Youssef Soliman. He was furious at receiving a no let on match ball and it was a muted farewell with many of the crowd having headed home before the match.
He is planning to develop his academy in Santiago and help the next generation of aspiring young professionals to follow in his footsteps in Spain.
India’s Saurav Ghosal won in straight games against Scotland’s Greg Lobban, like Willstrop a late entry into the draw on Friday. Another 35-year-old youngster, Ghosal spoke movingly of his friend and former Pontefract training partner Willstrop.
It was Ghosal’s first time playing back in England since the Canary Wharf Classic in 2020 before the pandemic brought a halt to the tour and the World No.15 put in a clinical performance to ensure he reached the second round.
Ghosal said: “I’m happy to be back in England, this is my first trip – I couldn’t play the British Open and Manchester because of the restrictions and quarantine. I’m just glad that I’m here.
“It was difficult to stay fit [during lockdown] because you never knew when the tournaments were going to come back. I’m glad that we’ve gotten through it a little bit, a lot of people all over the world have suffered and it’s something that is very sad and words aren’t going to do much for them but hopefully they can find the strength and as a human race we can learn something from this.
“The quality that James [Willstrop] is producing is unreal. His racket skill, even when he’s 80, will be up there with the very best and by the looks of it he is still moving more than alright.
“He’s a playing legend right now, he’s the last of that generation. The quality that they have produced and taken this game to is unbelievable and everyone is lucky to watch someone of James’ quality still producing.
“It’s been a bit of a hard run over the last few months, I’ve had a few rough draws and I got sick in America. It’s been hard both physically and mentally, but it’s good to be back in London and England. It’s a brilliant tournament and I’m happy to play here and hopefully produce some quality squash. Greg is a top player and hard to break down and I’m glad I could win 2-0 and put together some good points during that match.”