Malay magic in Kolkata

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

Mohd. Azlan Iskandar of Malaysia, the champion.-S. PATRONOBISH

WITH its bigger cousin, tennis, having already produced icons in India, squash is waking up in search of wider acceptance. After Chennai had ushered in international competition through the Super Satellite series, Kolkata became the second stop in the country for international players when the city hosted the $20,000 two-star Professional Squash Association (PSA) tournament recently in one of the oldest squash clubs in the world, the 212-year-old Calcutta Racquet Club. Malaysia's leading name, Mohammed Azlan Iskandar, won the title defeating Canada's Shahier Razik in the final. Iskandar, ranked 15th in the world, defeated the 36th ranked Razik in straight games after the Canadian had upset second seeded Australian, Cameron Pilley, in the semifinals.

The tournament attracted players from countries such as England, Pakistan, Wales, Egypt and Australia in addition to India's own Ritwik Bhattacharya and Saurav Ghosal. The main event had 16 players, 11 of them direct entries, one a wild card given to current National champion Ghosal and four qualifiers. The main draw would have attracted bigger names but for a four-star meet in Cairo coinciding with the Kolkata event. Bhattacharya, ranked 62nd in the world at the time of the tournament, had to play the qualifiers, which gave up and coming Indian players the opportunity to display their skills. While Bhattacharya got a first round bye in the qualfiers, his compatriots — Parthiban Ayappan, Harinder Pal Sandhu, Gaurav Nandrajog and Under 13 world topper Ramit Tandon — lost in the first round. Supreet Singh was the only Indian to progress to the second round of the qualifiers where he met Bhattacharya. Singh, ranked 248th in the world, lost his bearings against the former national champion, who took just 18 minutes to wrap up the match in straight games, 11-7, 11-2, 11-3. The other names booking main draw berths were Australian Cameron White and the Pakistanis, Khayal Muhammad Khan and Basit Ashfaq.

Bhattacharya was on song in the main draw, upsetting fourth seeded Mohamed Essam A. Hafiz of Egypt in a match that went to the decider. Bhattacharya, who won the third Chennai Open in June, was seeking to emulate the success in Kolkata. In his five-year professional career, the former National champion has won four satellite titles and one super satellite title, which was the latest triumph in Chennai. He has had more success in the season winning two consecutive satellite events — the Rochester ProAm in New York and the Internacional d'Squash Esportiu in Spain — in January. The three titles saw his ranking go up 40 places in July to a career-best 57th. Bhattacharya's aspiration has been to get into the top 30 in the PSA circuit by the end of the season and he was upbeat about his chances before the Kolkata tournament. "I have never lost a match in the city. I hope that I will be able to win my first star-grade title here," he said. However, his hopes came crashing down in the quarterfinal, where he lost to another qualifier, Pakistan's Khayal Muhammad Khan, in an encounter that saw a lot of bad blood between the two. By beating Bhattacharya, 69th ranked Khan produced his second upset of the tournament. He had earlier toppled fifth seeded Ben Garner of England. Khan's compatriot and qualifier Basit Ashfaq caused another upset in the first round beating seventh seeded Gavin Jones of Wales before meeting Iskandar in the quarterfinals.

The other Indian in the main draw, Saurav Ghosal, was unlucky to play top-seeded Iskandar in the first round. The 19-year-old tried his best against the top seed and squared the score 1-1, winning the second game, before succumbing to his formidable opponent. Though he lost, Ghosal, the British Junior Open champion, impressed with his maturity and precision and won many admirers including the tournament director Major S. Maniam, who said that the player has the talent to be in the top 20 of the world.

The three top seeds, Iskandar, Pilley and Razik, made their way into the semifinals beating Ashfaq, eighth seeded Stacey Ross and sixth seeded Alister Walker, both from England, in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Iskandar stopped the march of qualifier Khan, who lasted only 24 minutes before losing in straight games. Razik got past Pilley in a great battle of endurance in the other semifinal. The Canadian took the lead each time Pilley drew level. The decider took an interesting turn as Pilley took an 8-4 lead but the Australian developed an ankle sprain to give away the advantage to Razik.

The final illustrated Iskandar's indomitable form. Razik, whose defensive approach in the semifinal against Pilley worked, was at a loss against the superior attack of the Malaysian. Having lost both the matches to the Canadian in their previous two meetings three seasons ago, Iskandar pulled one back this time, winning in three straight games to take the winner's purse of $3068 and his second big title of the season. "Iskandar has gone from strength to strength in the last few years," said Razik. "When I beat him last he was a kid but today I find him one of the finest squash players in the world." Iskander would certainly love to prove his opponent right in the future.

The results

Seedings prefixed: Final: 1-Mohammed Azlan Iskandar (Mas) bt. 3-Shahier Razik (Can) 11-6, 11-7, 11-3.

Semifinals: Mohd. Azlan Iskandar bt. Khayal Muhammed Khan (Pak) 11-4, 11-7, 11-0; Shahier Razik bt. 2-Cameron Pilley (Aus) 11-8, 9-11, 11-8, 5-11, 11-8.

Quarterfinals: Mohd. Azlan Iskandar bt. Basit Ashfaq (Pak) 11-3, 11-2, 11-5; Khayal Muhammed Khan bt. Ritwik Bhattacharya (Ind) 10-11(0-2), 11-7, 11-9, 11-8; Shahier Razik bt. 6-Alister Walker (Eng) 11-9, 11-5, 9-11, 11-2; Cameron Pilley bt. 6-Stacey Ross (Eng) 11-5, 11-5, 8-11, 11-10(2-0).

Seeing all the angles

BORN in the district of Borneo, Mohammed Azlan Iskandar, 23, is the finest product of the Malaysian Squash Federation's youth development programme along with Nicol David, who is the third ranked woman in the world.

The champion attributes his success to his English coach Neil Harvey, who, according to Iskandar, is one of the best coaches in the world. "I joined Harvey fours years ago and he helped me improve my ranking by more than 50 slots," said Iskandar, who lives and trains in London and who has as his housemate Indian star Ritwick Bhattacharya. "We are very good friends and have been sharing the same apartment for the last four years," said Iskandar.

The Malaysian likes adventure sports and does a lot of rock climbing and water-skiing in his spare time. "These sports help me develop extra strength in my muscles which keeps me agile for a longer duration on court."

Iskandar attributed his passion for the game to his liking for geometry. "The game is all about playing the angles you see. It is simple and the mastery of the player is in creating the most difficult angles for the opponents," said Iskandar. His next target is to break into the top 10 by the end of the season. "A squash player peaks at the age of 28, hence I have got some time to realise my dream of being the best in the world," he said.