Willstrop on a high

England's James Willstrop holds the trophy after the final.-PICS: SANDEEP SAXENA

James Willstrop got a standing ovation from the crowd when Gregory Gaultier offered his hand of congratulation, unable to continue any further while trailing 1-6 in the fourth game. Over to Kamesh Srinivasan.

It was a heady climax that everyone wanted to witness. James Willstrop was on a high. He was beating the best regularly, in the big events. He had won two tournaments, back to back in Hong Kong and Kuwait, to become No. 2 in the world. He had made everyone forget the absence of fellow Yorkshireman, world No. 1 Nick Mathew, who was nursing an injury.

He had a big team, including his father and coach Malcolm Willstrop, to ensure that he was physically ready and mentally fresh and motivated. Thanks to the strong backing, he could afford to travel with his entourage to the last event in the calendar.

It was a stage where the 28-year-old Willstrop had lost the final of the second edition of the Punj Lloyd PSA Masters in 2010, a year in which he had lost to Nick Mathew in the Commonwealth Games final as well.

The record had to be set right. Nothing comes on a platter and Willstrop was stretched to dig very deep into his resources in a fabulous climax, by former world No. 1 Gregory Gaultier of France. Never mind that the match did not last till the end. The first game in itself was equal to two matches!

It was a marathon game that nearly lasted an hour and showed the great character of Willstrop. Even as his opponent was at his athletic best, weaving a web around him and causing considerable distraction by his constant dialogues with the umpire that had the crowd amused, Willstrop kept his cool and stayed focussed.

At one stage Gaultier demonstrated how Willstrop was standing in the way of his shot. He said that he deserved more than a ‘let' and the Englishman was not willing to lose his intensity of approach and did not want to waste any energy. Willstrop, the taller, stronger and younger of the two opponents, was a wise man. He was willing to grind it out, as he had admitted earlier when he got past compatriot Daryl Selby in four games in the quarterfinals, that he was ready to play an unattractive but effective game, to reach his goal.

It was a high quality fare as Gaultier converted his sixth game point to pocket the first game. Willstrop stuck to the basics and did not try anything extravagant. He got off to a good start in the first game but allowed a spell of errors to wipe out the advantage. Willstrop cut his errors out and scotched the hopes of his opponent who was drained and soon started struggling with a thigh injury.

Willstrop got a standing ovation from the crowd when Gaultier offered his hand of congratulation, unable to continue any further while trailing 1-6 in the fourth game. The Englishman had played so hard that his opponent struggled to even walk properly.

It was a great advertisement for squash, but it was a pity that the arena was not packed. The organisers had done everything, including a welcome move to keep the entry free, but had failed to promote the event from the point of view of spectators.

The event may have great following around the world through paid television coverage on internet, but it is the crowd that enlivens the atmosphere and brings the best out of the players. Here the best players of the world were fighting their hearts out, but in front of near-empty stands.

In the thick of action... James Willstrop (right) and Gregory Gaultier sweat it out in the summit clash.-

There was not much for the home crowd to appreciate except for the seven-time national champion Saurav Ghosal. The cheerful young man who has been training diligently with Malcolm Willstrop in Leeds for the last few years, and is deemed a top-10 potential by the genial coach, put up a good fare but could survive for only two rounds. He was shown the door by Peter Barker in the pre-quarterfinals in four games. Saurav had earlier dismissed Julian Illingworth of the U.S. with surprising ease at 12-10, 11-4, 11-2.

He may have a big heart and a strong mind, but Saurav who had enjoyed a career-best rank of 22 last year, is a small man on the big court. He has to be extraordinary in terms of court coverage and craft, which is not always possible against the top players of the world who thrive on the slightest of openings in shutting the door on their opponents.

Siddharth Suchde who had gained an entry with a wild card was at pains to point out that he was a much better player than what the world No. 3 Gaultier projected in the first round. Siddharth won 11 points in the match, but gained a lot of experience against a top class player who showed the nuances of play despite a small frame.

If anything, Gaultier could be a great source of inspiration for the likes of Saurav Ghosal and Siddharth Suchde, as he showed how to overcome limitations and be on top of the physically demanding world of squash.

James Willstrop became world No. 1 with his third successive title on the tour, but Gaultier underlined the fact that if he could afford matching support for himself in terms of personal expertise, he could tame anyone.

Top players like Ramy Ashour and Karim Darwish, with an adorably attractive game, lost early. Ashour had aggravated a thigh injury and Darwish lost to an inspired game by two-time world junior champion Mohd. El Shorbagy.

No doubt it was terrific entertainment through the week in the event that offered $165,000 in prize money, but it was a shame that there were so few to savour.