Men’s World Open Preview from Richard Eaton
The first Englishman ever to become world champion may need to be at his resiliently athletic best to ward off challenges from Ramy Ashour and Amr Shabana, two former winners who have beaten him in recent weeks.
Those defeats were followed by the ending of Matthew’s fine sequence of ten successive PSA Tour finals – and this too was caused by an Egyptian, the slightly lesser knownTarek Momen, in the first round of the Qatar Classic in Doha.
So it wasn’t entirely surprising that after Matthew read he had been seeded to retain the title at the World Open, he responded with a healthy dose of scepticism on his Twitter post.
“How can an article say I’m ‘set to retain World Open title’??!” he said. “Bit presumptuous isn’t it?! Lol. Plenty of hard work before that happens.”
Matthew may be particularly mindful that he was beaten by a resurgent Shabana, four times the former World Open champion, in the US Open final in Philadelphia earlier in October – even though the Egyptian had not competed on the PSA Tour for six months. At his best Shabana is the most gifted player of his generation.
In addition, when Matthew lost to Ashour, the world number two, at the world team championships in Paderborn in August, it was the first time he had ever done so in straight games. It did though prompt him to emphasise that much could change by the time of the World Open.
“When playing Ramy, you pick up new things in your game which only he can expose. I learnt a lot playing him in Australia,” he said of their exciting five-game encounter in the final in Canberra. One change could be brought about by the hamstring injury which Ashour exacerbated two weeks ago in Doha, causing his retirement.
Most people will sincerely hope not, since Ashour too is a great talent and it was hamstring problems which so painfully forced him to relinquish the defence of the World Open title last year at Al Khobar.
“It’s lovely to have won the (World Open) title, but it doesn’t count for anything now,” Matthew concluded. “What’s happened is gone and in the past. Every match, even against a qualifier in the first round, is difficult. And difficult in different ways.”
This remark looks especially relevant given that the draw has brought him a possible repeat encounter with Momen, in the second round this time.
Matthew also has the two famous 35-year-olds in his half – Thierry Lincou of France, and David Palmer of Australia, both former World Open champions, and both still dangerous on their day. He may though have been helped by both Ashour and Shabana being placed in the other half of the draw.
Shabana, aged 32, seems a potential front runner again despite his long absence and after mysteriously being omitted from Egypt’s world title winning squad. It was intriguing to hear him admit that it had been a great relief to win the US Open at the start of this month.
The seedings still say that Matthew should have a semi-final against a former world number one from Egypt. That though is Karim Darwish, whose brilliant win over another leading Englishman, James Willstrop, made possible Egypt’s retention of the world team title.
The fourth-seeded Willstrop should face Shabana in the quarter-finals in the bottom half, where Ashour could be headed for meeting with Gregory Gaultier, the sixth seeded former world number one from France who won his first title in 18 months in Doha.
Whoever wins will be well remunerated. The tournament is only the third World Open to combine men’s and women’s events, and boasts a record $410,000 prize money. The women’s, in which Nicol David will be attempting a record sixth World Open title, does not begin until Tuesday.