The second edition of the PSA Dubai World Series Finals saw one champion defend their title and one beast roar back from the abyss, as Dubai Opera provided a magnificent stage for five days of pure sporting theatre. Sam Price reports
Another iconic venue was added to squash’s enviable roster of tour destinations this week with the successful staging of the PSA Dubai World Series Finals, the first-ever sporting event to take place at Dubai Opera.
And the majestic theatre formed the perfect backdrop for some sensational athletic performances over the course of the five days of competition, as Mohamed ElShorbagy and Laura Massaro triumphed in tournaments that threw up all the drama and emotion that you would expect from a theatrical production.
ElShorbagy had come into last year’s tournament as the strong favourite having won six of the seven PSA World Series titles on offer, only to exit at the semi-final stage. In contrast, this year the 25-year-old was slightly under the radar following a disappointing campaign that saw him suffer a dramatic loss of form and confidence, as well as his treasured world no. 1 ranking.
But it was a relaxed and rejuvenated ElShorbagy who spoke to Vision Sport before the tournament about his fondness of Dubai and the joy of having his brother Marwan playing alongside him, and from the moment he stepped out on court in his opening-night win against James Willstrop, the Egyptian looked in the zone.
It was Willstrop who would also line up against him in the final, but not before ElShorbagy had shown the fighting spirit that has made him such a great champion, winning marathon best-of-three contests firstly against Ali Farag, and then against tournament surprise package Simon Rösner, who had two match balls in a thrilling semi-final that went late into the night.
There were no signs of tiredness in the main event, however, as ElShorbagy showed exactly why he’s nicknamed ‘The Beast of Alexandria’, occupying the front-centre of the court and nullifying Willstrop’s trickery with a dominant 12-10, 11-9, 11-8 victory.
At the start of the season, I felt drained physically and started losing matches, and it hit me a little bit mentally... But this week something clicked and I got my hunger back
After the match an emotional ElShorbagy, who was winning the prestigious end-of-season event for the first time, took to the stage to embrace his brother, a touching scene that was met with roars of approval from the crowd.
“That was the most important win emotionally for me,” he said afterwards, before explaining the reasons for his earlier loss of form and motivation.
“I played too many matches when I was world no. 1 – way more than anyone else. At the start of the season, I felt drained physically and started losing matches, and it hit me a little bit mentally. I lost my confidence.
“But this week something clicked and I got my hunger back,” he added, before highlighting the inspiration he has gained from his brother, who enjoyed a breakthrough season on the PSA World Series to qualify for the event for the first time
“We are both lucky that we live the same life, share the same dreams and support each other,” said the elder ElShorbagy.
It was also an emotionally-charged occasion for Willstrop, the part-time actor who has battled back from career-threatening injury and seemed inspired by the Dubai Opera stage.
“For a theatre buff it’s pretty sensational to be involved in a place like this,” he admitted afterwards. “I’ve always responded to theatrical and iconic venues – they’re incredible to play at and this was certainly one of those.”
Earlier in the women’s final, Willstrop’s compatriot Laura Massaro retained her Dubai title with an assured display against world champion Nour El Sherbini, winning 11-8, 12-10, 11-5 to turn the tables on the Egyptian, who had beaten her in the final group stage match.
“It’s unbelievable because I was thinking that it would be really good if I could get out of the group,” said Massaro. “I’m really happy and I can enjoy a few days off now.”
Massaro has shown all her tenacity and experience when saving two match balls to overcome the talented 19-year-old Nouran Gohar on a hugely dramatic night of semi-finals 24 hours earlier, which also saw El Sherbini prevail having faced two match balls from top seed Camille Serme.
France’s Serme was crowned PSA Women’s Player of the Year alongside Gregory Gaultier – who was awarded the men’s equivalent – in a lavish awards ceremony on the eve of the tournament, while all of the players impressed both as athletes and ambassadors throughout the event by engaging with fans at the end of matches and holding squash clinics with winners of age-grade tournaments.
The juniors used to only come on Fridays and Saturdays, but after the PSA World Series Finals moved to Dubai, they’re now coming four to five times a week
According to local coach Faheem Khan, who has been running the Al Nasr Leisureland squash club for the last 14 years, the staging of the tournament in Dubai has led to a significant increase in grassroots participation.
“The juniors used to only come on Fridays and Saturdays to have a sweat and learn the basics, but after the PSA World Series Finals moved to Dubai, there has been a real boost. They’re now coming four to five times a week,” he said.
“It is really inspiring and motivating for them to play with world-class players, and after today’s clinic, they will be going to sleep with their rackets!”
By promoting grassroots squash as well as the professional tour, the PSA Dubai World Series Finals are succeeding in elevating the sport to give it the profile it deserves ahead of a period in which it must demonstrate its suitability for Olympic inclusion in 2024.
And at the trophy presentation, which saw ElShorbagy and Massaro take home cheques of US$160,000 each, the PSA’s charismatic Chairman Ziad Al-Turki claimed the event was a key example of how Dubai is prepared to deliver sports in a different way to attract new audiences.
“Last year, when we did the tournament with the backdrop of Burj Khalifa and the fountains, you thought, ‘How could you do it any better?’” he said to an enthusiastic crowd, who had swelled as the week progressed.
“And then you step in [Dubai Opera]. This has been amazing.”