R1: Late night win for Surrey

Late night win for Surrey and long road home for Exeter

You can’t say that Surrey fans aren’t committed.

Some 45 minutes before the match against Exeter Diamonds even started, it was already a full-house with standing room only. Maybe it was the sheer buzz and excitement around Surrey’s first match of the new PSL season that inspired the dutiful squash fan’s commitment. It was after all, a double bonus last night for the packed out audience as world number 1, Mohamed Elshorbagy was stepping up for Exeter, fresh from his recent win at the AJ Bell British Grand Prix in Manchester. He took on Surrey’s frontman and world number 11, Peter Barker.

There was also a tantalising Egyptian clash in prospect between Surrey’s Karim Abdel Gawad (WR12) who was making a welcome return to the Surrey squad as he took on Exeter’s Mazen Hesham (WR 20) who played for Surrey last season. Added to that, rising-star, Charles Sharpes (WR 61) made his inaugural debut for Surrey after previously playing for Surrey rivals, St George’s. Confused yet?  You see, football doesn’t have the monopoly on all the exciting transfer action – although perhaps they win in the money stakes.

Exeter’s Victoria Temple-Murray (WR 69} decided to extend the anticipation for everyone by arriving late because she went to the wrong Virgin Active club! N.B. to self: don’t ask Victoria for directions if you‘re on your way to an away match in the future. After a solid performance for Surrey last season, “Ice Man”, Piedro Schweertman (WR 74) made a “chilly” return to the squad. Wimbledon player, Nada El Kalaaway also made a welcome return to the team after coming back from an injury. After a late start and a night of what turned out to be nearly all five-setters, it was a late night for everybody at Surrey. Surrey though, were the eventual victors 3-2 overall and took away a well-deserved win and started the season in fine form.     

Charles Sharpes 3-2 Tim Vail 11-6, 8-11, 7-11, 11-5, 11-9 [63m]

So after a bit of a late start, Charles Sharpes took to court against veteran, Tim Vail. Sharpes had a strong start and set a fierce pace for Vail. Sharpes controlled the T from the off and didn’t let Vail settle. Sharpes opened up a 4-0 lead in the first but Vail dug in and pegged back a few points. The crowd “oohed” at 6-5 when Sharpes slotted in an overhead backhand volley drop. Vail however was dogged and stood his ground. Sharpes took the first 11-6.

Vail responded well in the second and was up 6-3. Sharpes closed the gap to 8-8 to re-establish himself but a determined Vail pushed past 11-8 with his experience showing through. In the third, it was evident that Sharpes wasn’t too sure how to respond and seemed to go slightly out of focus but hung in there whilst Vail maintained a lead before eventually taking it 11-7.  In the fourth it seems that it was Vail’s turn for a lapse in concentration as Sharpes maintained a good lead and took a decisive fourth game.

Vail started strong in the fifth with a 3-0 lead before Sharpes mounted a response and took the lead. It became apparent in the fifth that Vail’s energy levels were running low and he was rapidly running out of steam. Sharpes maintained the pressure though and pushed ahead. Vail made a determined push to keep himself in the running and got back to 8-8. At 10-8 and match ball to Sharpes there was a frenzied rally that ended in a boast by Sharpes that narrowly clipped the tin. Undeterred, Sharpes managed to bring matters to a close 11-9 in 63 gruelling minutes.

Speaking about the match, Charles felt that, “The crowd was brilliant and it was obviously a really good atmosphere down here. I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t play as well as I could but I was happy to get a win as Tim is a tough player to be up against. We’ve had a number of battles over the last couple of PSL matches and I think he got the better of me last time, so happy to win but hopefully I can pick up the performance a bit.

“He is so good with his racket and he just knows how to play different players and I find it quite difficult playing him – maybe my game just suits his game. I had to straighten up a bit more against him so that I didn’t leave him any angles and tried to think a bit more about where I put the ball. You want to try and make Tim move and if you don’t, you’re in trouble because of his racket skills. It started to work but got a bit close in the end.

“It’s obviously good to beat him because he’s a tough player and I’m sure we’ll have a few more battles down the line.”

Piedro Schweertman 3-2 James Peach 11-4, 11-2, 6-11, 8-11, 11-3 

After unthawing in the off-season, “Ice Man” Piedro Schweertman was frosted up and ready to take on Exeter’s James Peach. This turned out to be a see-saw of a match that saw Schweertman take a convincing first two games, only for Peach to turn the tide and to strike back with a gutsy performance to equalize 2-2. In true Ice Man form, Schweertman held his nerve and used his experience and guile to push forward and got past Peach 11-3 to take it in 5.

Speaking about how it was to be back playing for Surrey, Schweertman said that, “It was good – especially at home. It was a big crowd and the first round with the world number 1 and Pete Barker and Gawad for us and Mazen who formerly played for us, so it was a good line-up – world-class”.

Speaking about his match with James Piedro felt that, “the first three games were good – the first two and the last one! The other two, he changed some tactics of course, which is logic but I stepped down the pace a little bit too much and he could get back in the game. He tried to get more in front of me – so in the first two games I was more in front of him but he changed that in the third and the fourth, which worked well for him but took me a couple of games to adapt and also a bit of focus but happily I ended with a good game. There were three good games but I’m not so happy with the other two!”

Nada El Kalaaway 3-1 Victoria Temple-Murray 8-11, 11-7, 12-10, 11-7

Meanwhile, Nada put in a fine performance over on the neighbouring court after losing a close first game; she managed to get the better of her opponent, in three close-fought games. Nada was the eventual victor and delivered a much needed win for Surrey and surely inspired confidence in herself after coming back from injury.

Karim Abdel Gawad 2-3 Mazen Hesham 11-8, 11-7, 17-19, 9-11, 12-14 [80m]

This match was perhaps the pick of the evening as it was sure to be filled with Egyptian flair. And indeed it was as the rising-star and character of, Mazen traded body blows against Gawad. Hesham had a superb previous PSA season claiming some scalps and has shot up the rankings as a result. Likewise Gawad has put in some fine performances and now sits at a career high ranking and recently made it to the semi-finals of the British Grand Prix after dispatching Miguel Angel Rodriguez (WR 4) in the quarter-finals.

True to Egyptian form, these guys didn’t stand on ceremony and wasted no time attempting to feel each other out or building the rallies – instead choosing to fire in rapid attacks from the start and to feather in a string of incredible nicks. This was clearly going to turn out to be a bruising encounter. It wasn’t until the business end of the game at 9-8 that they had a rally of any significant length. The players stayed point-for-point but it was Gawad that closed out the first. Hesham was clearly upset not to win the first.

The second saw both players tinning a lot and ended up at level-pegging at 5-5. It became clear that one of the significant factors at play here was the familiarity with each other’s game as they clearly play a lot against each other back in Egypt. Whilst the front-left of court is one of Gawad’s strong areas, this was nullified to some extent by Hesham who was on to Gawad’s attacks in the front-left like a shot. Likewise, Gawad was wise (as you can be) to Hesham’s ability to fire-in the most random shots. So with just 8 ranking places separating them, the margins were very small. Indeed this was borne out in the second as both players went point-for-point delivering a relentless succession of attacks at a frenetic pace.

Gawad’s experience shone though and allowed him to push past Hesham 11-7. Hesham started strongly in the third whilst Gawad trailed 3-6 only to then expose the perils of playing percentage squash as Hesham hit a number of tins. This was coupled with an increasing amount of self-talk as he clearly went out of focus and became distracted by refereeing decisions. He managed to regain some balance though at 8-9 and both players picked up the pace again. Gawad was steadfast and punched through a series of low, hard kills to great effect.

At the tie break it was a true see-saw match as the rallies grew longer and the tension mounted – this was anyone’s game. And so it continued to 17-16 after a long rally with some amazing squash that ended with a long round of applause and cheers from the crowd. It was evident that this game was critical from a psychological perspective to both players and was going to shape the overall outcome. After some blistering squash it was Hesham who won the game 19-17. Both players were clearly shattered by the thundering pace and lengthy rallies.

The energy expenditure in the previous game clearly took a toll on Hesham and was reflected in his lapse of focus in the fourth whereupon he began tinning more shots and his confidence dipped. Gawad’s experience and fitness saw him through. Hesham hung in there and managed to stay with Gawad much to his credit as he managed to turn things around to win the game 11-9. Hesham continued his renewed form in the fifth getting himself to a 6-3 lead. This time it was Gawad’s turn to make resurgence to 8-8. Both were clearly tiring by this point yet still managed to put in some relentless attacks.

Another tie-break followed and after some incredible retrieving from Gawad at 11-10 it was a real fight to the finish and neck-and-neck to the end but it was Hesham that closed the deal 14-12 in an enthralling and highly entertaining match.

Speaking about playing for Surrey again, Gawad felt that, ”Surrey was my first team when I started playing PSL, so it’s nice to be back and part of the team and I feel like I’m playing at home, so I’m really happy to be part of the team again this year”.

Asked about his match against Mazen, Gawad commented that, “Of course, me and Mazen are very close friends and we practice a lot with each other back home and play at least once or twice at every week. We know each other’s games and always play tough and close games. We expected it was going to be a tough match and luckily we won the match before we started so we just tried to enjoy the match and make the crowd enjoy it.

“I think we played a very good match. I think I had too many match balls – more than 8 or 9 match balls and I was 2-0 up. I did nothing wrong and I think that he played well too, so I think it was a bit of luck and it was a 50/50 match. I’m ranked 12 in the world and he’s ranked 20 so it’s always close – any top 20 or 30 guys it is always close, so you never know”.

Peter Barker 1-3 Mohamed Elshorbagy 9-11, 7-11, 11-8, 9-11 [40m]

It was already about 10:30pm by the time the first strings took to the court. Clearly the crowd was eager to see the world number 1 in action and bear witness to some superb squash. Needless to say, the crowd wasn’t disappointed. Both players were on good form and exchanged lots of light-hearted jokes with each other and the referees.

As you might expect, Shorbagy didn’t hang around and got straight to business with his trademark approach of attacking and taking the ball extremely early. He thundered in several nicks but Pete was able to absorb the pressure and assert himself well and got to a 5-2 lead. Shorbagy pulled back some points to keep himself in contention and eventually levelled things at 8-8. With the momentum in his favour and fast-pace he took the first 11-9. Shorbagy carried his momentum into the second and extended to a 9-4 lead managing to keep himself ahead of the Surrey stalwart.

The “metronome” Barker managed to pull one back in the third by containing his Egyptian opponent with some tight squash that limited the angles available to Shorbagy and used height to his advantage. Shorbagy managed to pull a few back towards the latter stages but it wasn’t enough and Barker whisked the third away. The fourth saw some very funny exchanges between the players that kept the crowd amused and showed the great sportsman-like attitude of both players. It was even-Stevens most of the way but Shorbagy’s relentless pace and volleying that just applied too much pressure on Barker as Barker’s time on the ball became less and less. This was what eventually sealed the deal for Shorbagy and delivered a fantastic finale to the happy Surrey crowd.

“I was pleased to get a game!” said Barker afterwards. “…He’s world number 1 and I didn’t play that much this week to give my body a bit of a rest and obviously the team winning was good”.

Speaking of the difficulty of playing the world number 1 Barker said that, “his pace is a big factor as he takes time away from you and you’ve got to move around the court very quickly – a lot quicker than other players. He’s accurate and that coupled with pace – that’s what makes him. There are 3 or 4 guys at the moment that are challenging but he’s number 1 at the moment and unfortunately I’m not there but there’s a good rivalry up the top of the rankings.”

Speaking about their win, Surrey manager Pete Smith commented, “What a start to the new PSL 2015/16 season. A thrilling, high quality match with two quality teams…some truly world-class squash. A full-house enjoyed the evening and it was a great win to get the season started”.   

Match report by Daniel Richards

You can follow Surrey’s progress on Twitter: @VA_SurreyPSL

Matches start at 7:00pm. Tickets are £10 and are available by contacting Pete Smith on 0208 253 1314 or squash.surrey@virginactive.co.uk