Mansoor signals comeback

A title at the beginning of the year is always auspicious - Mansoor Zaman-S. PATRONOBISH

Mansoor Zaman hopes that his victory in the three-star PSA tournament would mark the beginning of his journey to the top. Amitabha Das Sharma reports.

For someone who is a champion in the fiercely competitive world of international squash, Mansoor Zaman presents a different image with his congeniality. But ask his opponents on court and they will all come up with superlatives about his skill and character as a player of exceptional merit. A handful of Kolkata’s squash enthusiasts were witness to the unravelling of Mansoor’s talent during the three-star PSA (Professional Squash Association) tournament, organis ed by the Calcutta Racket Club, recently. The Pakistani beat a host of higher-ranked players to bag the title.

Though the tournament, which was the highest rated PSA singles event ever held in India, drew a constellation of international stars, it lacked fanfare, and that too in a city which claims to have the oldest squash club in the world — the Calcutta Racket Club was founded in 1793. The event had seven players from the world’s top-50, virtually making the main draw (a draw of 16) a list of who’s who in squash. And for the first time, the tournament saw the introduction of the three-referee system.

The event will go down in squash history as one that witnessed the return of one of the prodigious artists of touch and timing. Mansoor himself appeared quite relieved after having rediscovered his form. He played a wide range of strokes which none of his opponents could counter. And the last in the line of Mansoor’s victims was Ong Beng Hee, the Asian champion since 2000, and the tournament’s No. 2 seed. The Malaysian, who had beaten Mansoor in almost every meeting in the recent past, including the Asian Championship finals in 2000 & 2004, discovered to his own peril the true class of the Pakistani. Mansoor hammered Beng Hee 11-8, 11-7, 4-11, 11-8 in the final.

“He has the skill to beat anyone in the world,” said Beng Hee of Mansoor. “If he keeps playing like this he will enter the top-10 (in PSA rankings) very soon,”

The exit of the legendary Jansher Khan had left a big vacuum in Pakistan squash. Mansoor, who became world No. 11 in 2003, showed the potential of becoming Jansher’s successor. However, recurring injuries hindered his progress.

The focus has now shifted to Aamir Atlas Khan, 17, the nephew of former world champion Jahangir Khan and son of coach Atlas Khan. Atlas Khan, incidentally, had coached Jahangir Khan.

It was only natural that Mansoor’s name did not figure prominently in the list of the four-member Pakistan contingent in which Aamir Khan, the world’s top ranked junior, enjoyed the pride of place. Mansoor’s cousin Shahid Zaman and Farhan Mehboob completed the Pakistan team.

Malaysia’s Azlan Iskandar and Beng Hee, ranked world No. 16 and 18 respectively, took the top two seedings. Iskandar had won the title when Kolkata hosted its first PSA event — two-star category — in 2005. Egypt’s Omar Mosaad, ranked No. 27 in the world, was seeded No. 3.

As for India’s participation, the young National champion Saurav Ghosal led the nation’s charge. While Gaurav Nandrajog came through the qualification rounds, the US-based Siddarth Suchde earned a wild card. Also in the Indian team was Ritwick Bhattacharya, the man responsible for putting India on the map of world squash. Bhattacharya, like Mansoor, was hoping to make a grand return to the stage after a brief lay-off owing to a knee injury. The Indian, winner of seven PSA titles, could not display the desired form and was outgunned in three straight games by the fourth-seeded Aamir Khan.

Ritwick’s hopes of making a grand return to the stage came a cropper.-V. GANESAN

The greater part of the Indian challenge petered out in the first round itself with Nandrajog and Suchde losing in similar fashion against Egypt’s Mosaad and Pakistan’s Mehboob respectively.

The biggest surprise of the tournament was the first round exit of top-seeded Iskandar, who was blanked by the unheralded Shahid Zaman. The Malaysian committed a number of uncharacteristic errors which Shahid capitalised on.

Shahid then ran into his cousin Mansoor in the quarterfinals and lost in four games.

The quarterfinals also saw the end of the sub-continent’s two promising names, Saurav Ghosal and Aamir Khan. Ghosal could not match the aggression of third-seeded Mosaad. Playing his first tournament of the year, the Indian, who raised a lot of hope following his first round victory against junior British Open champion Mohamed El Shorbagy, succumbed to Mosaad 3-1.

Ghosal made it 1-1 winning the second game and had a comfortable lead in the third but played successive negative points to give away the game and the match.

Aamir Khan, on the other hand, went down to lesser-ranked Egyptian Omar Abdel Aziz.

Mansoor Zaman’s best effort came against Mosaad in the semifinals. The Pakistani had his moments of despair against the powerful Egyptian, who ran up an 8-4 lead in the fifth game as the match went into the decider. Mansoor, however, refused to give up. He showed his craft and steely resolve, as he picked up five points on the trot with a variety of strokes to make it 9-8. And that was enough for him to force Mosaad into submission.

The other semifinal was also a five-game affair where Beng Hee showed better endurance to outlast Abdel Aziz. The final was virtually one-sided. Mansoor, seeking to avenge his defeats against long time friend and opponent in the pro circuit, Beng Hee, produced an effort that can easily be termed as one of his best performances at the highest level in the world.

“A title at the beginning of the year is always auspicious,” said Mansoor. He hopes that this triumph would mark the beginning of his journey to the top.

THE RESULTS (Prefix denotes seeding) Final

Mansoor Zaman (Pakistan) bt 2-Ong Beng Hee (Malaysia) 11-8, 11-7, 4-11, 11-8.

Semifinals

Mansoor bt 3-Omar Mosaad (Egypt) 11-5, 4-11, 7-11, 11-7, 11-9; Beng Hee bt Omar Abdel Aziz (Egypt) 11-8, 9-11, 6-11, 11-8, 11-4.

Quarterfinals

Mansoor bt Shahid Zaman (Pakistan) 5-11, 11-6, 11-8, 11-6; Mosaad bt Saurav Ghosal (India) 11-8, 4-11, 11-9, 11-1; Abdel Aziz bt 4-Aamir Atlas Khan (Pakistan) 6-11, 11-3, 7-11, 11-1, 11-7; Beng Hee bt Farhan Mehboob (Pakistan) 11-10 (2-0), 11-9, 11-4.