Matthew and Grinham are ToC Champs

Top seed and current world #2 Nick Matthew won his first J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions title defeating his long- time rival James WiIlstrop, current world #1 and the second seed, 8-11,11-9,11-5,11-7, before a jam packed crowd that was glued to their seats in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal for the entire 85 minutes of match play.

It was an especially jubilant victory for the 30-year-old Englishman who was in his fourth Tournament of Champions final and playing his first tournament after two months off the tour to recover from an injury. “This win is right alongside the Worlds and Commonwealth Games gold medals as my best victories,” said the tired Yorkshireman after the match. Besides the trophy, Matthew also won back the world #1 ranking which he had held for all of 2011, but slipped from his grasp when he had to take the injury hiatus from the tour.

The match was marked by physical play, wall hugging drives and several mini shifts in momentum. “I think one of the differences tonight was that I did a better job of capitalizing on the momentum when it shifted my way,” said Matthew. That was certainly true in the third and fourth games, but in the first it was Willstrop who took advantage when he surged ahead 10-7 after being down 5-7. Willstrop rode the momentum from his 11-8 first game win to take an early 5-2 lead in the second.

Matthew got out in front, literally and figuratively, to move ahead to 6-5. Up 9-7, Willstrop moved Matthew to the four corners of the court and looked like he would have game ball when he forced a loose shot from his opponent at the front of the court. Instead, he hit the tin.

“The end of that second game was really the difference in the match,” said Willstrop. “I needed to put it away.” Instead of being ahead 2-0, the 2010 ToC titleholder was tied at one all with an opponent who was physically fresher as a result of not having played any tournaments for two months. One could also see Matthew’s confidence build as play continued. The third game saw Matthew stay in front of Willstrop almost the whole way to take the game 11-5.

The fourth game was marked by several swings in momentum. Matthew jumped out to an early 5-1 lead, but Willstrop clambered back to 5-5. “At 5-1, I started thinking about winning the match, and then, before I knew it, it was 5-5,” said the eventual winner. “So I had to re-focus.”

After Matthew took the next point on a stroke decision, Willstrop stayed close but couldn’t snatch back the lead. A few times during the game, especially as play got physical, Matthew got emotional.

“I knew I needed to be aggressive,” said Matthew. “But some it was also the pent up emotion of the last couple of months. It was hard to lose the #1 ranking because of inactivity, and sometimes I could be a real pain to be around.”

At match ball, 10-7, Matthew passed Willstrop on the forehand side with a rail that was too crisp and too deep to retrieve.

After four trips to the final, Matthew was taking home the ToC Trophy and reclaiming the world #1 ranking. James Willstrop, in his own word, “needs to work harder” to figure out a way to beat his long-time rival, who has now defeated Willstrop 13 consecutive times, dating back to February 2009.

In the evening’s first match, squash mom Natalie Grinham taught her opponent Dipika Pallikal a thing or two about court coverage and strength. And Grinham’s 19-month-old son Kieran can add a new phrase to his vocabulary – instead of just saying “Mommy America”,he can say “Mommy America champion.”

The 33-year-old, who has played under the Dutch flag since marrying fellow squash player Tommy Berden, kept her 20-year-old opponent off guard and off balance and the match victory for Grinham was never in doubt.

“Dipika is quite handy with the racquet and she volleys quite well, so I made sure not to put the ball where she could easily reach it,” said Grinham, who was relentless in picking up every offensive effort that Pallikal threw at her. The former world #2 also used length and width to keep her opponent out of the middle of court. Grinham’s crosscourt drop from the front left wall proved especially effective.

“I just didn’t have any strength left in my legs,” said the rising star from India who was playing her ninth match in 10 days.“

Thu 26th, Finals:

[2] Natalie Grinham (Ned) bt [5] Dipika Pallikal (Ind)      11/4, 11/3, 11/3 (25m)

[1] Nick Matthew (Eng) bt [2] James Willstrop (Eng)      8/11,11/9,11/5,11/7 (85m)

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