The opening day of the main draw of the Delaware Investments U.S. Open at Drexel University in Philadelphia saw just one upset, but what an upset it was as the USA’s Chris Gordon experienced “the best moment of my squash life” as he beat Egypt’s Hisham Ashour in a thrilling five-setter.
More of that later, as after the noon match was rescheduled to 4pm, it was left to top seed and world number one James Willstrop to open proceedings on the all-glass court.
Willstrop was facing Alister Walker, the Botswanan world number 12 who has had several close matches with the Yorkshire favourite of last, but with a 10-0 head to head record Willstrop started the firm favourite.
The top seed was relatively untroubled in the first two games, taking them 11-3, 11-4, and although Walker struck back to take the third 11-7 and hold his own for the most part of the fourth, it was Willstrop who advanced, taking the fourth 11-9 after a tough 80 minutes to christen the glass court.
Qualifier Steve Coppinger’s prediction that all the main draw players he might get were tough propositions proved true enough as he had to wait until Cameron Pilley had posted 13 unanswered points before the South African managed to trouble the scoreboard.
Coppinger went on to make the second and third games more competitive, but Pilley was always in charge as he went through 11-0, 11-5, 11-5 in half an hour.
“I wanted to try to get a good start, I knew that Steve had two tough qualifying matches in his legs,” admitted Pilley. “I did that and managed to keep it going so I’m happy to get through in three. We’ve trained together a fair bit but that was our first competitive match.”
Asked about the possibility of breaking his own 175mph spedd record set here last year, Pilley declared himself “up for a go at it, but not while I’m still in the tournament, I nearly pulled my shoulder out last year!”
Pilley’s next opponent will be eighth seed Mohamed El Shorbagy, who beat Germany’s Simon Rosner in a very competitive four games. The Egyptian took the lead, Rosner levelled and early in the third required treatment on his back. It didn’t seem to affect him unduly though, but he was unable to capitalise on hard-earned slight leads in the third and fourth games as Shorbagy closed out the match 11-7, 6-11, 11-9, 11-7 in 68 minutes.
“I’ve seen some of Simon’s recent matches where he’s had good results,” said a relieved Shorbagy, “so I knew it was going to be tough. When we had that break I took the time to think about my tactics and I managed to play well enough to win the next two games.
“I don’t have a good record against Pilley,” he admitted, “but our games are always tough, so I hope I can play as better in my next match.”
Daryl Selby was pleased enough with his 11-5, 11-9, 12-10 win over qualifier Omar Abdel Aziz – “If someone had offered me 3/0 before the start I’d have taken it,” said the Englishman, “even though there were some things I could have done better.”
The Egyptian started slowly but improved as the match progressed, and established a four point lead in the third but couldn’t finish it off as Selby recovered, using his video challenges to good effect.
“He got better as the match went on,” said the winner, “he found his length well and I wasn’t hitting the ball as well as I’d like, I had to scrap it out towards the end. I can do better, and I’ll have to against James but at least I have a chance to do that,” he concluded.
Karim Darwish is usually one of the best finishers in early rounds of tournaments, and although the Egyptian fifth seed duly completed a straight-game win over Hong Kong qualifier Max Lee, it wasn’t with his usual straightforward efficiency. Lee established leads in the first and third games, 6/1 and 7/2 respectively, but couldn’t hold on to them as Darwish refused to let a game go, winning 13/11, 11/2, 11/9.
“It’s my first real tournament since El Gouna,” said Darwish, “we had a baby, spent some time in the US, training back in Egypt and I was injured in the Malaysian Open, so it’s been a long time since I’ve been on court feeling right.,
“The first match in any tournament you’re always a bit nervous, especially in a big tournament like this, and against someone like Max who is improving all the time it was never going to be easy.
“I love the venue, I love playing in the US, they take care of us so well here. My aim for any tournament is to play as well as I can and win it, so I’ll be trying my best for the rest of the week.”
Hisham Ashour has mercurial talents, but is prone to spells of inconsistency, and mix this with an American spurred on by the home crowd and playing as well as he ever has, an upset looked on the cards from the beginning.
Gordon took the lead in a tight finish to the first, Ashour levelled, but lost out on extra points in the third. Another fightback from Ashour levelled it, but the fifth was all Gordon as he refused to give ground, retrieved brilliantly and forged ahead with Ashour becoming more and more frustrated.
As the Egyptian’s final shot hit the tin Gordon sank to his knees in celebration, and the crowd rose.
“This is the best moment of my squash life,” said a delighted winner. “I’ve had a few good wins, a few close misses against some of the top guys but this tops everything by a long way, I can’t believe it.
“Winning the first helped, but DP [David Pearson] was telling me that I needed to start not just be competing, but believing that I could win. I was playing well, not perfect and not flashing winners but nice and solid and steady, and I started to believe I could win.
“It’s not the best I’ve ever played but it’s definitely the best match I’ve ever played. I’m not blessed with Hisham’s vision and talent but I’m proud that I could weather the storm and stop him bringing the wow factor he often does to the court.
“ To finally get a win like this, here, in the US Open, it’s just fantastic.”
It would have been hard for the next match to live up to that, and Frenchman Gregory Gaultier, the third seed, made sure it didn’t with a comprehensive 11-1, 11-2, 11-3 win over Finland’s Olli Tuominen.
One of the fans’ twitter questions was put to Greg after the match, asking what he ate after matches. “Cheeseburger and Fries,” he joked. More truthfully he was happy with his performance. “I haven’t been here for long and it took me a little while to start feeling comfortable, but I was happy enough with the way I played, especially at the front of the court, so hopefully I can improve as the tournament goes on.”
The final match of the day pitched birthday boy Joe Lee, who had produced two qualifying upsets to reach this stage, against experienced Spaniard Borja Golan. The 23-year-old Englishman matches Golan all the way for two games, which were shared although he had his chances to go two games up, only tailing off towards the end of the third and fourth games as a relieved Golan went through 8-11, 11-9, 11-6, 11-5 in 76 minutes.
“He played really well today,” said Golan, “he did well to qualify and proved that he belongs at this level, he’s improved a lot even over the last few months. In the end I think it came down to experience, and I had a little bit more energy than him at the end.”
Men’s Round One (top half):
 James Willstrop (Eng) bt Alister Walker (Bot) 11-4, 11-3, 7-11, 11-9 (80 m)
Cameron Pilley (Aus) bt Steve Coppinger (Rsa) 11-0, 11-5, 11-5 (30m)
 Mohamed El Shorbagy (Egy) bt Simon Rosner (Ger) 11-7, 6-11, 11-9, 11-7 (68m)
Daryl Selby (Eng) bt [Q] Omar Abdel Aziz (Egy) 11-5, 11-9, 12-10 (57m)
Christopher Gordon (Usa) bt Hisham Ashour (Egy) 11-9, 8-11, 13-11, 5-11, 11-6 (59m)
 Gregory Gaultier (Fra) bt Olli Tuominen (Fin) 11-1, 11-2, 11-3 (24m)
Borja Golan (Esp) bt [Q] Joe Lee (Eng) 8-11, 11-9, 11-6, 11-5 (76m)
No joy for home fans on women’s opening day at Drexel
The first match of the day saw France’s Camille Serme beat pre-qualifier Amy Gross in three games. A decent start of 5/4 in the first -and a late flourish from 9/1 down in the third from Gross weren’t enough to stem the tide of French points.
“It was a lot of fun, and getting to play someone in the world top 20 in my first professional tournament was a great experience,” said Amy. “The pace and pressure were just so much more than I’m used to, but I really enjoyed it.”
“I was a little nervous,” admitted Serme, “it’s been a while since I played in a qualifying event, and when you play a local you never know how good they might be. I was pleased with how I played, a good start and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Things looked more promising when former world junior champion Amanda Sobhy took a 2-1 lead against Sarah Kippax, who had been elevated to a seeded position after the late withdrawal of Jaclyn Hawkes. But the Englishwoman fought back to take the final two games convincingly.
”I lost 3-2 to Amanda in January so I was keen to get a win today,” explained Kippax. “She’s very strong and skilful, but I managed to keep my consistency for most of the match, although there were a few swings of momentum. I worked her hard and I think she tired towards the end.”
Another English victory followed as Alison Waters, re-established in the top ten and almost certainly playing her last qualification event for a while, beat Misaki Kobayashi 11-6, 11-6, 11-6. “Someone has to get her,” tweeted the young Japanese, “but I enjoyed it!”
Nour El Tayeb, another former world junior champion, proved too strong for Elizabeth Eyre, whose main concentration at the moment is her studies at Princeton. “It was good fun,” said Eyre, “I saw her play in the World Juniors so I knew it was going to be tough! I’ve got two more years of study, I’ll concentrate on that and playing for Princeton, then we’ll see how my game goes after that.”
Donna Urquhart also wasted no time as she beat Maria Elena Ubina in straight games. “She crushed me, but I knew she would,” said Ubina, realistically.
After those couple of quickfire wins he longest women’s match of the day followed as Canadian Sam Cornett, the world number 37, produced “the biggest win of my life” as she came from 2-1 down to upset India’s world number 14 Dipika Pallikal.
“Shahier told me that I needed to try to slow the pace down, but she plays so fast it’s really hard to do that, it’s easy to just go with it and hit the ball. I managed to get the pace down after three games, and I played a little bit risky but it worked, I’m so delighted.
“I went to five with Donna in the Carol Weymuller, losing 11/9 in the fifth, so it should be a good match tomorrow.”
“I didn’t even know I was in the tournament until yesterday,” said a delighted Egyptian, and I spent all 10 hours on the bus here telling myself that I had to win this time, I couldn’t lose in five like I did lasy time I played Latasha in January.
“It’s been hard getting used to the lifestyle here in the US, the training, the studying, and the whole thing is so different to what I was used to in Egypt. I’m glad that my standard hasn’t dropped like I thought it would, now I just want to keep winning to start getting my ranking back up again.”
That left just one US hope, but New Zealand’s Joelle King was too strong for Amanda’s younger sister Sabrina Sobhy as the world number 12 completed an amazingly strong qualifying finals lineup for tomorrow.
Tomorrow – Sunday – sees the conclusion of the men’s first round with the bottom half of the draw, and the women’s qualifying finals.
Women’s Qualifying Round One:
Camille Serme (Fra) bt Amy Gross (Usa) 11-5, 11-2, 11-5 (18m)
Sarah Kippax (Eng) bt Amanda Sobhy (Usa) 11-8, 2-11, 10-12, 11-3, 11-6
Alison Waters (Eng) bt Misaki Kobayashi (Jpn) 11-6, 11-6, 11-6 (29m)
Nour El Tayeb (Egy) bt Elizabeth Eyre (Usa) 11-7, 11-6, 11-6 (20m)
Donna Urquhart (Aus) bt Maria Elena Ubina (Usa) 11-8, 11-5, 11-4 (18m)
Samantha Cornett (Can) bt Dipika Pallikal (Ind) 14-12, 8-11, 8-11, 11-8, 11-9
Kanzy El Dafrawy (Egy) bt Latasha Khan (Usa) 11-9, 11-9, 5-11, 11-7 (34m)
Joelle King (Nzl) bt Sabrina Sobhy (Usa) 11-6, 11-6, 11-7 (23m)