Just a few thoughts on the Hong Kong Open and in particular the Cameron Pilley victory over Mohamed ElShorbagy. I feel like there have been so many upsets and close calls of top seeds falling for a number of reasons. The glass court they are using is not forgiving if you are even just slightly off your mark. I've seen more simple unforced errors from top players including whiffed return of serves, a lot more crosscourts than normal and some really loose drives and so on. It was surprising how consistently players are crosscourting on a backhand return of serve; they must have some trouble with the left wall on the glass court. Of course it's the first event back so some of the players are probably a bit rusty and haven't had a competitive match in some time. I also think the players must struggle a bit on this court.
Another reason I think there have been some upsets and really close calls is because a lot of players have been focusing on their fitness training during their time away from matchplay. Of course this also will have included a break and some time away from the game. It's a very short off season for the top players and for them to have 2-3 weeks off and then put in some off season base training they simply haven't had time to get back into tip top match play form.
I feel this is really what happened with ElShorbagy. Pilley was able to handle the pace of play and ElShorbagy was quite heavy on his attacking shots. He put a number of boasts into the tin and left his drops way too high while Pilley was much more exact with his short game. Still the match was anyones game. There were a number of poor decisions by the refs and an incorrect call giving Pilley one of the games. I was worried near the end of the match that a simple let could be a no let or stroke. I'm sure the players had a few sighs of relief on some of the calls.
I'm guessing by watching the match last night that ElShorbagy did not spend his off season polishing his short game and nor should he. But the fact the Pilley beat him last time they played and ElShorbagy was #1 and this was a tough 2nd round match for him I could see how this put extra pressure on the world #1 and wouldn't help his short game. If you leave a drop or boast a few inches too high you'll get killed at this level and that's what happened. Pilley had a pile of winners on both drops off the bounce and the volley. I feel it really shows how difficult it is to fire on all cylinders all year round. And to top it off the court is one of a kind and difficult to play your best on. It certainly makes for some interesting matches though.
Besides the superior attacking play there were a number of other things that really stood out to me about Pilley's tactical play. I noticed how straight he played from the front left. He never crosscourted unless he really had too because he know ElShorbagy was waiting to pounce on it. There are certain times he was under quite a bit of pressure and was able to hit a great straight drive and reset the rally or even reapply the pressure. The other thing I noticed is how good he was at hitting crosscourts from the back of the court when the ball gets slightly behind him. There were lots of instances where I thought the ball was too far behind him and he would be forced to play a straight drive and ElShorbagy would be waiting to pounce on it, but he was able to flick it (even on the backhand) and get sufficient pace and width on it. I found this a pretty amazing skill. I know I sure can't do that!
Last thing about this battle which I have already hinted at is the pressure of the outcome. Pilley had no pressure and was able to play more freely while ElShorbagy carried all the pressure and was playing to win. The only time Pilley looked tight to me was near the end of a couple of the games where he started thinking about the finish line. You could tell he was being much more cautious and was lucky that ElShorbagy was playing pretty cautious the entire match. You don't get away with playing cautiously at this level. It really was a great demonstration on how pressure or the lack of can influence how you play. If we focus simply on the result and maintaining our record or seeding we normally won't be at our best. Although anyone that saw Raneem El Weleily must also see that this can go the other way too! She's too talented to be out in the 2nd round, but she just looks like she is out there playing just for fun and lacks the intensity and consistency. Either way I would never bet for or against her!
A whole post about the HK Open and I haven't even talked about Ramy once yet! I haven't seen his 2nd round match yet, so maybe I'll have another post to write about this event soon. Stay tuned and please check out the Serious Squash online shop at SeriousSquashShop.com