Willstrop asserts his class

Published : Jan 11, 2003 00:00 IST


DECEMBER ushers in the music season in Chennai. The various sabhas in the metropolis provide lively recitals to enthral the connoisseurs. At the TNSRA-SDAT complex, far away from the music world, it was a recital of a different kind for lovers of squash. A unique experience in fact of watching matches being played in an all-glass court, the only one of its kind in this part of the sub-continent. The occasion was the World Junior men's championship, which was staged, in India for the first time. How fitting then that the prestigious event, featuring the cream of junior talent from around 20 countries, should be conducted in a world class facility, which had come up through the initiative of Mr. N. Ramachandran, President, Tamil Nadu Squash Rackets Association and the Asian Squash Federation with the active support of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu and the Union Government.

Asesthetically designed, this modern complex has five new courts, including the glass-walled one, to add to the existing three, which were being used to run the India Cements Squash Academy. The postponement of the World event from the earlier date in mid-2002 to the end of the year because of strained international relations with India's neighbours actually came as blessing in disguise. For, it provided time for the new complex to come up and give the event a charm that must have been the envy of many a sports organiser. Indeed if there is one sport in India which has grown by leaps and bounds in a short period then it has to be squash. A club sport even as late as the 90s in Chennai, it is now a discipline which holds promise of making India a force in the Asian continent before long.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The World championship came in handy for the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) to test the Indian juniors, who were for the first time subjected to a long term, systematic and intensive training under the national Coach, Cyrus Poncha with expertise from Consultant Coach, Maj. (retd) S. Maniam, a former Chief Coach of the Malaysian Squash Federation. Maniam is credited with the success Malaysia enjoys in the sport and it came as a shot in the arm when the SRFI was able to rope him to put the Indian juniors on the right lines. At the end of the Championship Indian officials had a lot to cheer about with an Indian featuring in the pre-quarter-final of the individual event (Siddarth Suchde) and what is even more exhilarating, India finishing an unprecedented fifth in the team event, a clear jump of 10 places from its earlier best of 15th in 1992. For all the expenses incurred, including the five-star hospitality provided to all the visiting teams and officials, something acknowledged as unprecedented by the visitors, India's encouraging showing seemed to be adequate recompense.

However, the young man who stole the thunder was the rangy James Willstrop, from Yorkshire, England. The top-seed and with a rank of 40 in the PSA circuit, the world junior number one was only keen to get the endorsement as the World champion in his his last year in the under-19 event. His commitment and sense of purpose — starting with the decimation of Martin Knights of New Zealand, in the Centre Court on the second day of the championship — needed to be commended. With hands that work magic with the racket as he seemed to have that extra time, be it in executing the drops, drives or the cross-court shots, Willstrop's play was a sight to behold. Only in the semi-final did he blot his show a trifle but that was because of his Pakistani opponent, Khayal Muhammad's unfair ways. That match produced heated moments for the Referee to handle. It is a different matter that Willstrop was unstoppable, but losing his cool was something he kept regretting till the end. "It has never happened to me anytime. I thought he (Muhammad) was trying to use his hips to block my path unfairly", he said later on what agitated him.

Just as the seeding committee would have wished, Willstrop and his compatriot Peter Barker — the top two seeds-met in the final. If Willstrop was ruthlessly efficient, then Barker, ever the second best to the former in tournaments this season glided on the court like a ballet dancer. Big-built this Essex lad mixed power and delicate touches astutely to storm his way into the final with only Pakistan's Majid Khan — pushing him a bit. However, in the title-round, a highly charged Willstrop was in a different zone. Never in his five earlier meetings had he beaten Barker as devastatingly as on this occasion. In just 28 minutes he had completed the decimation to leave the audience stunned. When he exulted, it was for a dream that had come true after he had failed to cross the semi-final hurdle on the previous occasion. Poor Barker felt proud that the crown had gone to his team-mate, but conceded he had no clue to Willstrop's game plan.

Indeed these are two talents about whom much is bound to be heard of on the men's circuit. May be the Pakistanis too, for if there was anything sensational this time then it was this country's rise like a phoenix. "Watch out for us," was the team's Assistant Coach Ayaz Khan's statement on championship-eve as his boys had a rigorous workout in the centre court. The reason, he said, was that Rehmat Khan was now in charge, a Coach who made a world champion out of Jehangir Khan. By a surprising coincidence, Jehangir, as the WSF President, also graced the Championship.

With concern growing in Pakistan over the fall in squash standards. Rehmat's services were requisitioned and the British Open saw the results unfold with only Willstrop and Barker in the Under-19 stopping the sweep of the Pakistanis. "The same boys: — Majid Khan, Khalid Atlas, Khayal Muhammad and Safeerullah Khan — are here and I expect them to provide surprises", he had predicted. With all four of them in the last eight, Rehmat had to some extent justified his promise though none of them could shake either Willstrop or Barker. But the team event competition later showed why the Pakistanis have come to stay.

When compared to the earlier championships, this one had a smaller field. Europe had a smaller representation but the traditional participants such as Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Malaysia etc were there. Sri Lanka had a token representation, while the Kenyans looked the minnows of the lot. A surprise was Egypt's low-key show in the individual event with all its players falling in the third round like nine pins, the supposed spearhead of the pack being Moustafa Essem, the third-seed. A back injury was the reason for Essem's uninspiring show. Essem's conqueror, Julian Illingworth, proved a plucky performer for USA. Then there was El Galvez of Mexico, a longhaired and fun-loving character who was popular amongst the spectators not only for his looks but also for his never-say-die attitude on the court. The way he dived on the wooden flooring raised cries of disbelief, but the young man would rise as though he was just stepping out of a pool. Still, he did not go beyond the quarter-final. Australia had in Jhie Gough and Luke Margan, two strong-hearted players who though did not quite impress with their on-court demeanour.

For the Indians, the joy was Siddarth Suchde's confident run upto the fourth round before Barker stopped him. Playing much of his squash in Scotland, this bright lad is considered a class player by Maj. Maniam. With plans to study in the US besides pursuing his squash career, Suchde will be one player to watch for India. Of course, Sourav Ghosal is the most liked by players and officials from abroad. There is a certain charm to this young boy, just 16 years old, which made him a big draw. Then there was this unforgettable match he had with his close friend, Dylan Bennet of the Netherlands. Coming just up to the neck of his tall opponent, Ghosal gave his rival a run for his money in the second round. The match was replete with excitement as it stretched to the fifth game. The Indian fell from a winning position. Gaurav Nandrajog, Yashvardhan Singh, Anurag Gill, Dhruv Dhawan, Shakti Singh, Mihir Sheth, Supreet Singh, Vikas Jangra and Salil Vora were the other Indians who took part in the individual event.

Team event: The performances in the individual event necessitated a change in the seedings for the team event. One major beneficiary was host India which jumped from interim 13th seed to fifth seed. Clubbed with Egypt, Scotland and Malaysia the host had the best chance to earn one of the two berths to progress from the Group league stage. In all there were four Groups with holder England, aiming for its fourth consecutive title-win in Group A, along with Canada, Wales, Switzerland and Ireland. Pakistan aiming for a share in the stakes, had done enough to jump to second-seed position to head Group `B' with USA, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Zimbabwe, while Group `C' had Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Kuwait and Kenya.

The all-round strength of Pakistan caught the eye while England's dependence was totally on Willstrop with Barker looking suspect after sustaining a groin strain. Egypt, the runner-up on the last three occasions, did not look as if it would realise its dream this time. As it happened, England, Canada, Pakistan, USA, Australia, Mexico, Egypt and India were the quarter-finalists. Pitted against England, India failed while Canada shocked Egypt. Australia downed USA and Pakistan set aside Mexico.

Like in the individual event, the seeding committee was again right though top-seed England looked suspect against Pakistan, particularly after its near fall against Egypt in the semi-final. As England feared, only Willstrop could defy the Pakistanis. Jon Harford did not prove a match to Khalid Atlas and when Majid Khan nailed the half-fit Barker, Pakistan had regained the title which it last won in 1982. The joyous scenes of the Pakistanis came as a striking contrast to the way Barker stomped out, smashing his eye-protection glasses and leaving his colleagues and officials dumbstruck.

Behind the success of any programme are the selfless services of a few individuals. The WSF Technical Delegate, Dr. George Mieras, made it a point at the post championship get-together to make special mention of Tournament Director, Srivatsan Subramaniam and the key adminstrator Manon Mashruwala for their tireless roles, which paved the way for the Championship's success.

The results: Final: Individuals: James Willstrop (Eng) bt Peter Barker (Eng) 9-0, 9-3, 9-1; Team: Pakistan bt England 2-1 (Khayal Muhammad lost to James Willstrop 2-9, 0-9, 1-9; Khalid Atlas bt Jon Harford 9-4, 9-7, 9-5; Majid Khan bt Peter Barker 9-2, 9-3, 9-7).

Placings: 1-16: Pakistan, England, Egypt, Australia, India, Mexico, USA, Canada, Malaysia, Kuwait, New Zealand, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Wales, Hong Kong and Scotland.

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