Monday Review : Covid rules lead to some cosy chats on court
Covid rules lead to some cosy chats on court
BY ALAN THATCHER
Sometimes the strangest of circumstances can lead to fresh discoveries. For me, the Covid restrictions applied at Canary Wharf have helped me to deliver a new style of player interview after the matches.
To be honest, shoving a microphone into a player’s face while they are still catching their breath after a brutal match has often felt a little intrusive and awkward.
Now, instead of sharing a microphone, I stand to one side with a hand-held mic, usually in the forehand service box, and allow the player to take centre stage on the T with a mic on a stand.
Instantly, it feels more relaxed. We have some space between us and it seems to give the conversation the room to breathe as well.
Thanks to the Covid rules, and the shorter matches in the best-of-three scoring format, it allows me more time to build a more rounded discussion with the players.
Take Ali Farag, for instance. I am expecting to hold four separate conversations with him this week. The last thing I want is for them all to sound the same. Of course, the match is the key ingredient of our interview, but I think the fans also like to learn more about their favourite players as well.
I do the necessary homework to make a rough outline plan in my head, relying on some fantastic statistics supplied by Howard Harding (Squash Info) and Ellie Mawson at the PSA for the preview material as well, but much of it is spontaneous. Rather than a rigidly structured interview, I need to react to what the players say and try my best to remember a few pointers if the exchange suddenly threatens to run dry.
As a lifelong journalist, I have always felt the need to dig a little deeper than the stilted, run of the mill questions that often follow a sports event.
We have a full-house crowd who deserve to be entertained and it certainly helps having so many intelligent and articulate players to talk to.
Knowing what interesting individuals these players are, I try to structure a different style of interview to bring out their personality.
Sometimes, especially talking to players like James Willstrop, it can feel as relaxed as chatting to an old friend in front of a pub fire, with a comfy armchair and a pint in our hands as we discuss topics of the day and sometimes meander a little down memory lane.
The loyal crowd at Canary Wharf have shared many of those moments and everything we do is about making their experience as enjoyable as possible.
Every day, the atmosphere inside the venue is like a big family reunion, and I want the fans to feel part of the conversation as well as the viewers tuning in to watch SquashTV.
On Sunday, James and I enjoyed such a conversation after his phenomenal victory over Mohamed Abouelghar.
Just for the record, I was the MC in Richmond, Virginia, when James produced that sensational triple fake shot against Ramy Ashour in the North American Open.
Everyone remembers the incredible, mesmerising shot that James produced. Very few recall that he was match ball down when it happened!
Tonight, James faces Gregoire Marche in the second round. Greg is our No.8 seed while James was listed as third reserve this time last week.
When Daryl Selby concluded his final appearance at Canary Wharf against George Parker, it was natural to interview both players. Both spoke well, and I was impressed with how George performed, both with the racket and the microphone.
Daryl, of course, spoke warmly and affectionately about his affinity with the tournament and his love of the venue, and it felt like the whole crowd wrapped their arms around him one final time.
Sadly, Borja Golan did not want to stay on court for a chat after the decision that ended his final performance at this famous arena!
Baptiste Masotti is a natural speaker. I loved the way he chatted away to the crowd and spoke so respectfully about his opponent, the wild card Charlie Lee. Iker Pajares also spoke warmly about Mathieu Castagnet, recalling that he had watched the Frenchman win the 2016 final against Omar Mosaad and had not made a single mistake in the whole match!
For me, that was one of the special moments of Sunday’s long schedule. In that single exchange, Iker showed the depth of his own knowledge and the fact that he recalled somebody else’s match in such acute detail was an astonishing revelation. It was just a shame the result spoilt Mathieu’s 35th birthday!
Last night, we were treated to some fascinating insights from Mostafa Asal, Tarek Momen, Ali Farag and Miguel Rodriguez.
Of course, I had to be mentally prepared to hold those conversations with four other players in case the results went the other way.
Here’s what they had to say last night:
“It’s my first time to be here in Canary Wharf and it’s amazing for me. The crowd, they are so close it feels like they are playing with us. I love the crowd, I’m a man of the crowd. I love you guys being here.”
When I asked Mostafa what he had heard about Canary Wharf from his PSA colleagues, he replied: “The other players told me ‘You should come’. It’s been amazing to see, even on SquashTV and how the fans are so close to the players. Last time my ranking didn’t get me in, but I’m very pleased to play in front of everyone here because you guys make the sport grow and grow, no seats left in the venue. Hopefully the sport can get to the Olympics. I’m going to make the sport grow for you.”
Right there, that’s an amazing comment from this astonishing young man!
I then asked him about his recent triumph at the new U.S. Squash National Center in Philadelphia and he replied: “The U.S. Open was an unbelievable tournament for me. I played for (a total match time of) 150 minutes to win the tournament. It was very tough. I was losing in all my matches; I was 2-1 down, I had some injury in my shoulder and didn’t know if I was going to play this event or not, but the doctor said I could play.
“I’m very pleased to play this tournament (Canary Wharf). I’m looking forward to every tournament, finish the tournament, hang out with friends, celebrate, and look forward to the next event. I want to push more. Everything I have achieved is in the past, not thinking about my age, thinking about the future. I’m 20 and I’m playing guys of 28-29 and I have the confidence that every tournament is a new chance for a new title.”
Tarek lost a tough second game against Baptiste Masotti in their first PSA encounter and said: “I’ve played him once in training in Egypt a few months ago.
“I knew he’s a danger as an up and coming French player and I tried to be very sharp from the beginning. Coming into this event, I didn’t think I had the best preparation, but I felt like I was getting into it. I wanted to get into the rhythm.
“The past two days I’ve been spending a lot of time on court and today I tried to start well, get myself in the zone. I think I did that well in the first game, but Baptiste is a fighter and he never gives up.
“He came back in the second and stepped it up a level or two. From then on I lost track of my game plan a little and I opened the court up much more than I should and he took his chances and built up a lead throughout the second game. I think I did pretty well to come back and thanks, Roy, the decision at the end cost me the game!
“In the third game I found my rhythm again and he was a bit unlucky with some errors and I just managed to get away with it.”
I asked Tarek about how the court was playing in our new November date and he told the crowd: “The court rewards a good shot. It rewards good drops and kills; it’s always good to have that. I felt happy on court today, moving well and hitting good lines. I have tomorrow to practice on it as well, and hopefully after tomorrow I’ll be ready.”
Tarek now faces Mostafa in the quarter-finals and, following some interesting dialogue between the two players in recent months, there were some questions that needed answering.
Tarek screwed his face up in a wry smile, but I gently encouraged him to keep talking. He said: “Mostafa is doing very well for a 20-year-old. You don’t see many players breaking through to later stages of Platinum events. He is a great player, I just wish he didn’t resort to the stuff that causes issues every time.
“If I play him 100 times I always think about the game plan and what I’m going to do. I try so hard to block out everything else. I take it one match at a time and see how it goes. After tomorrow it’s a new day and all I care about is playing my best. Hopefully no shenanigans; hopefully it’ll be a good match.”
After a 20-month gap since his epic Canary Wharf final against Mohamed ElShorbagy preceded a global lockdown for the PSA, Ali said: “It’s a joy to talk to you again, and to be here back at Canary Wharf. This is one of our favourite tournaments, across the year, because of the crowd – the atmosphere is unique in every sense of the word. All of this wouldn’t have happened without the great efforts of Tim Garner. He does a thankless job so we all want to thank him for putting up such a great event year after year.
“And for the match, I didn’t play Qatar so had a month in between my last tournament (the U.S. Open) and this one. You don’t usually get this period without tournaments during the season, so it felt like an off season again. So coming here, it feels a bit like the first match of a new season. You don’t know where you stand and you want to test yourself against the big guns.
“Yesterday Iker put on a great show. I thought Castagnet was going to get through just because of his experience , but he was the worthy winner and I watched every bit of it, so I was very wary of what was going to happen today.
“I started the match with very open squash and he punished me right away. Okay, I need to go back to basics again, so that’s why the first part of the game took so long because I wanted to assert myself on the T before I open up. Then I opened up a little too much but found my game in the second.”
I asked Ali to share his feelings about lockdown and returning to the Tour to win his second World Championship. He said: “I couldn’t have asked for a better year, really.
Lockdown, as tough as it was with people losing their jobs and dear ones, this is obviously something nobody can be happy about.
“But for me the lockdown was a happy period. It gave me some time to be at home and spend time with family, which is something that I never usually get a chance to do during the season. It gave me time to reflect on where I want to be in my career and life, but it was a good period off. Getting back in was tough without the crowds. but now we’re back and I’ve had a great year. Having my first child and winning the World Championships all within 11 days, I couldn’t have asked for a better year.”
I mentioned to Ali that one of our few disappointments in 18 years of promoting top-class squash at Canary Wharf was the fact that we never had the pleasure of welcoming Ramy Ashour to the East Wintergarden.
Ali replied: “You’ve seen all the best champions here, seen the best of squash, but you’ve missed out big time. Sorry to tell you that. For me Ramy’s the best squash player to ever grace the court. His talent was unique, his character and charisma, everything about him. I was sad to see him leave the sport, but he’s left a legacy we can all be proud of but hopefully we can fill the gap for you guys.”
I asked Ali to wind back the clock to his Harvard days to the time when he made the decision to turn professional. He admitted it was not a foregone conclusion.
“Well, I never thought I would be professional. I always thought juniors would be the end of it for me. I prolonged it for a bit at university, and my elder brother Wael, and Nour and my college coach Mike Way, the three of them kept pushing me to play.
“They said you have the talent for it, the hunger for it and to just go for it. I had to serve in the army so couldn’t get a job anyway for one year, so thought I would just go for it. I was touring the world with the person I love the most, doing the thing I love the most, and I was doing well so I thought okay this is the thing I will do for my career for the next few years and thankfully it went a lot better than I expected.”
I mentioned the recent progress made by Kent’s Georgina Kennedy, whose introduction to the professional ranks was delayed by the pandemic following a successful time at Harvard.
Ali replied: “Absolutely, it was a goal of mine to show you can become a good student and player at the same time. Amanda [Sobhy] helped pave the way, plus myself and Todd Harrity. Now to see Gina doing so well in such a short space of time, she was unlucky as she graduated during Covid so couldn’t play many tournaments. But now she’s proven herself by getting to the final of the Detroit Open. The sky is the limit for her. Her attitude is second to none and I wish her every success.”
The crowd welcomed Miguel back after a long absence. He said: “I think the last time was 2015. There’s something special in this event. The crowd make you play well, it’s the only tournament with a full crowd from day one. I’m thankful to be back here again.”
He had to fight all the way to get past a determined Declan James and he said: “He’s a very disciplined and talented player, he was very dangerous. I knew it would be tough, I had to dig very deep to get that second game.
“He played really well in the first, getting every ball back and making it difficult, so I had to pick up the pace. In the third I was leading, but I had to keep my pace high and won the third. It was a very mental and physical game.”
We talked about the great players here this week still performing at a supremely high level and I reminded Miguel that he was still diving across the court at 35 years of age.
He said: “Age is just a number, but I have adapted my game. Squash has changed over the past few years to be very physical and fast so I’m trying to be smart to choose events and prepare differently and I’m still enjoying the game.
“Playing Ali Farag in the quarter-finals is going to be a difficult match. We played in an exhibition match in New York not long ago and he was fantastic. I wish I could play like that! He’s going to be very challenging. That’s the good thing about squash, you can play the same players every few months and you have the chance to learn and adapt. But the main thing is just to be back here, in front of this full crowd.”