Monday, January 20, 2020

Improvisation

I watched almost every match on Squash TV at the recently completed Tournament of Champions. There were some amazing matches and as a player and coach I'm constantly analyzing and marvelling over the ability of the top players. The level of the game has never been higher and each year the bar raises. I thought Momen was going to take the event, but he had a few mental spats against Marwan Elshorbagy, Ali Farag and in the finals against Mohamed Elshorbagy.


What I watched at the TOC inspired this week's episode of Squash Shots and also today's blog post. Episode 36, titled 'Improvisation,' can be watched on the Serious Squash Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/tv/B7i7o-TpTe8/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

I was impressed with how fit and strong both Paul Coll and Joel Makin were. They hit so few unforced errors and with how well they move and for how fit they are, they must be a nightmare for almost everyone on tour. There's very few players in the world that can hang in there physically and mentally with those guys. Even still Makin and Coll haven't won a major title. Will they be able to with the style that they play or will they have to adapt their game? Can they adapt their game at this stage of their careers? Surely they can't get that much fitter, stronger and faster, can they?

In my opinion there are a number of players who possess the ability to hit anywhere at anytime. Players like Farag, Momen and Gawad are so smooth and are nearly unreadable. Diego Elias is also a guy who you could put into this category. Elias was the better player, but eventually succumbed to the physicality of Makin. So clearly being silky smooth and having world class ball control is not enough without an incredibly high level of fitness.

Gawad, Momen and Farag, just like the great Ramy Ashour not only have an immaculate short game, but they can also adapt their racquet preparation under pressure meaning they're nearly impossible to read. They play with very little tension in their arm which allows them to generate a lot of whipping action in their wrist so they can flick the ball to any part of the court. Coll and Makin on the other hand have a couple of very set, rigid preparations and they are more easily read by the top players in the world. It's this contrast of styles which is so enjoyable to watch, but I certainly prefer watching and cheering for the smooth moving and hitting Egyptian players.


Mohamed Elshorbagy's game is transitioning from a hard hat, Nick Matthew style of play. For years he basically played at a pace the rest of the field couldn't handle. Now there are a few that can and with the aging of Elshorbagy he has no choice, but to begin to refine his game. This is what Nick Matthew did as he aged. Matthew was able to find a few areas to be more deceptive with his shots. He couldn't continue to dominate with simply being super fit, disciplined, mentally tough and accurate. Would Matthew in his prime be able to be world #1 with today's pool of players? He'd be one of the top competitors, but I don't think he would win more than 1 or 2 titles per year as the depth of talent is simply too deep and talented now.


Nowadays there are a loads of players who are hunting the volleys, playing a high T position and are super fit. Back when Matthew was playing there were very few players who had this effortless style of play and the racquet skill that the top few do now. The ones that come to mind are of course the GOAT, Ramy and the maestro, Amr Shabana. When either of those legends were fit enough to hang in with Nick or Greg Gaultier they would have the edge. But when they're not 100% fit, healthy or strong they would have trouble hanging in there.


How do these top Egyptian players develop the uncanny ability to have such a relaxed, accurate and unreadable swing? A lot of it has to do with their decision making. They understand what their opponent is reading and they know how to create space on the court by having countless options from a variety of set positions.


Many other players prepare the same way every time they move to a specific part of the court and have maybe 2 or 3 options, but they can be fairly easily read compared to the players who have adaptability in their swing. The ability some of these squash magicians have to accelerate and decelerate their swing at the last second to change the speed and angle of their shot is what makes them so great to watch. Doing this means their opponent has to wait longer on the T and expend more energy to move off the T, which also dictates that they will be at the ball a little later and generally keeps their opponent off the volley. Squash is a sport where fractions of a second make all the difference and dictates if a player has to defend or attack and how hard they have to work. Even the top movers and fittest players in the world can only take so much.

A good example of being unreadable and smooth was first two games of Farag and Coll. Farag was reading Coll like a book and was on the ball so early. Coll on the other hand was under a lot of pressure trying to just get the ball back and hang in the rallies. Coll's tenacity and fitness was almost enough to be able to come back and win the match, but ultimately Farag had just enough in the tank.

If Gawad was fitter would be have beat Elshorbagy? What if Momen got better calls or was mentally a bit stronger and handled those decisions better? I would say they are technically the two best players in the world and when Momen is in the right mindset and Gawad is fit they are almost untouchable. The reason why? In my opinion it's their ability to use all 4 corners with tremendous accuracy and their ability to adapt their swing to hit into the open space. Have they practiced more than the other top pros or have they just practiced differently and if so what exactly was it that let them develop their world class racquet skills?


Back when I was doing my masters I did my final project on decision making at the front of the court for professional squash players. So this is a topic that has always interested me. Can you teach a player to make better decisions and be tougher to read at the front of the court? Definitely yes, but I've never seen a top player successfully change their style from a grinder to a smooth attacking player. Some ideas I would try is relaxing the arm, varying the timing of hitting the ball, having 4 or 5 different set racquet preparations and doing a lot of shot option drills and conditions games. Part of it will also come from video analysis of watching their matches and seeing where they are being read and where a new shot or two could be helpful.


Is the future of the top of the PSA be based on speed, strength and fitness? Or will players with superb racquet skill dominate? Or will a mixture of the 2 be what is necessary to win major titles? If a player is at the highest end of racquet skills can they ever be as fit and fast and strong as Coll and Makin? And can players like Makin and Coll ever develop magical racquet skills? I don't have all of the answers, but it is sure a lot of fun to watch.

 With so many amazingly talented players right now, there is 1 thing I do know for sure. TO be world # 1 for any length of time is going to take the consistency of results that will only come to those that are fit enough to back up big matches and mentally strong enough to pull out close matches. In these situations do you back the super fit or the more relaxed and technically gifted? Beating 3 or 4 of the worlds best in consecutive days it's not going to be easy to win any big trophy and that's what is going to make in 2020 so much fun to watch.

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