By RJ Mitchell
Sarah Fitz-Gerald believes that Nour El Tayeb’s Manchester Open triumph has handed the World No.4 a vital advantage ahead of next week’s CIB World Tour Finals, which will take place at Cario’s Mall of Arabia between September 28 – October 3.
The former US Open champion emerged triumphant from an elite field that included seven members of the women’s top-10, as El Tayeb underlined that when it came to any after effects of the PSA World Tour’s Covid-19 pandemic enforced suspension, she had lost none of her venom.
The ‘Black Widow’ killed off the hopes of World No.7 Amanda Sobhy and World No.5 Sarah-Jane Perry in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, before coming back from a game down to account for top seed and World No.3 Camille Serme in a hugely impressive victory in the title match.
While with World No.1 Nouran Gohar and World Champion Nour El Sherbini not playing in Manchester, the great Fitz-Gerald, a five-time World Champion and double British Open titlist, says its advantage El Tayeb in the build up to the World Tour Finals, being held in Cairo’s Mall of Arabia, in just four-days-time.
Yet with Manchester’s beaten finalist Serme coming into Tuesday’s final after a 69 minute five set epic semi-final with Hania El Hammamy and over 100 extra minutes of squash in her legs, the Aussie legend admits that ‘La Panthere’ will have rested, licked her wounds and be determined to take revenge when the duo once again face-off in their sure to be intriguing Group B encounter.
The former World Champion said: “I thought Nour El Tayeb was really good in Manchester and it is great that she has come back and started the new season the way she started last season. She has a lovely personality and I thought she played some great stuff over the week.
“Obviously you are not sure just how much of an edge Cami’s [Serme] semi-final with Hania [El Hammamy] took off her game but you can’t take anything away from Nour, she came back from a game down to win convincingly and that will have done her confidence going forward to the World Tour Finals a huge amount of good.
“Certainly, it is fascinating that Nour and Cami have both been drawn in Group B and when you look at the result from the final at Manchester there are different ways to look at it. Looking back at my days on the tour I went into each tournament with a fresh mindset, every tournament is different and when you have won a big tournament like Manchester, which took on extra importance because it was the first one back, then there can be a slight let down physically and mentally.
“Yet at the same time I am sure you would be wanting to go into the World Tour Finals on the back of the confidence boost of a win and on top of that I think Nour has an edge head to head with Cami.
“But from Cami’s perspective she will be much fresher and will not have had a five set battle like that in her legs and she will be fired up to get revenge, so, like pretty much everything, there are two ways to look at it. But technically Nour is looking good right now and she has made the best possible start back.”
Nour El Tayeb in action against Camille Serme (right)
Drawing on her own experiences as the game’s female ruler on three different occasions spanning 40-months between November 1996 and February 2003, Fitz-Gerald admitted that the trade-off between shedding ring rust and ending up with lactic soaked legs can go either way.
“Looking back at my own career, in particular, I remember a British Open in Cardiff (1996). I had an epic with Sue Wright in the second round and I think I edged it 10-9 in the fourth but with the scoring the old hand in, hand out, it lasted 1hr 47 minutes and Jansher (Khan) who was on next had to warm up three times and was less than chuffed!
“But although I followed that up with good wins over Carol Owens and Fiona Geaves in the quarters and semis it caught up with me by the time, I made the final against Michelle [Martin]. Yet particularly in the semis when I met Fi I had beaten her enough to enjoy a mental advantage that helped me overcome my fatigue. So, having a positive head to head against someone can definitely be of advantage, while when it comes to match-time you can have too much of a good thing.”
Fitz-Gerald also had warm words to say about the challenge of 20 year-old Hania El Hammamy who lost an epic five-setter with Serme at the National Centre and who ‘Sarah Fitz’ believes has a big future.
“Hania is definitely great for the sport. She has a great personality and I would say she is the next big thing on the way through.
“Obviously, she came up just short against Cami but that was a tremendous match and what an advert for the women’s game and she is only going one way. On top of that, the semi-final will stand her in particularly good stead for next week at the World Tour Finals, it will only have sharpened her game.”
Yet Manchester had two notable absentees with neither Gohar or El Sherbini in action and Fitz-Gerald reckons that is something that may come back to haunt them in the land of the Pharaohs next week.
“If it had been me then I would have wanted to play Manchester. The girls will have had their reasons and I don’t know how much court time they will have had to practise but there is a big difference between practising and playing competitive tournament squash.
“Again, from my experience, after such a long lay off you just want to be back up and competing and getting your match head on and those that played at Manchester will have benefitted from shedding some ring rust, there is no doubt.
“That said you can never underestimate Nour [El Sherbini], she has raised her game so many times when it really matters, and she will know exactly what works for her.
“But I would love to see Nour [El Tayeb] getting more big results and as I said from what I saw of Manchester her game is in very good order, her confidence will be high and she has the benefit of competitive game time under her belt and some big wins against other top-10 players and from wherever you are sitting that is a plus.”
Next week’s CIB World Tour Finals will also be Gohar’s first competitive outing as the new World No.1 in the women’s game and drawing from her own experiences Fitz-Gerald admitted that she herself struggled to make the mental adjustment between being a long-standing No.2 to ‘the one’ when she ascended for the first time, after ousting Michelle Martin, in November 1996.
“Nouran [Gohar] is a strong tough girl but there is no doubt that going into a World Tour Finals with it being your first tournament one back after such a long lay off and as the new World No.1 is going to be a challenge.
“There is a world of difference between being World No.1 and World No.2, as I know. When you are chasing that top ranking you are totally focussed on chasing down the No.1 but when you make it to the top you need to adjust mentally and emotionally and the worst thing you can do is adopt a defensive mentality.”
“I learned that lesson from the first time I went one and when I got there for a second time, I was ready for it. I think it was a similar case with Raneem [El Welily], she went top and perhaps was not quite ready for that but then when she went back to the summit she knew exactly what it meant and she stayed there a long time.
“So, Nouran will have that mental adjustment to make but I like her attitude, she is strong and aggressive mentally and hopefully she will handle it.”
Reflecting on the surreal atmosphere in Manchester caused by the observation of the strict Covid-19 health and safety protocol, Fitz-Gerald admitted tremendous credit was due all round.
“The PSA, Manchester and the players all deserve huge credit for putting on such a great tournament which had an extremely high standard of squash, but it certainly seemed a weird atmosphere for the players.
“To see the ball flying out of the court and then watching as they had to go and get it was strange. In fact there was an instance when Hania [El Hammamy] in her semi with Camille watched a ball going out and was waiting for someone to throw it back only for the realisation that she was going to have to go out there herself and get it, to dawn!
“The other thing was that you were watching some mammoth rallies out there with tremendous squash and the only people clapping were Joey [Barrington] and Vanessa [Atkinson] on SquashTV and that must have been really surreal.
“In terms of the towel boxes it will be interesting to see if the PSA continue with that. It certainly cuts down on the amount of times players will be wiping their hands and arms down the walls and that is good but if you are cute you can also use it to disrupt an opponent’s rhythm, so time will tell if PSA continue with it.”