Three days of power-packed entertainment at Dubai Opera have seen champions fall, slow starters fight back, and a showreel of incredible athleticism to tee up a mouthwatering semi-final lineup at the PSA Dubai World Series Finals. Sam Price reports from Dubai
The top eight men and women on the PSA World Series have served up entertainment befitting the incredible stage on which they’re playing this week, with a score of memorable matches keeping the crowd absorbed during an action-packed group stage. Vision Sport presents a round-up of the first three days of play as we approach the climax of this prestigious tournament.
The first afternoon threw up one of the shocks of the tournament as Simon Rösner, the unheralded German ranked world no. 11, pulled off a stunning 2-0 upset over top seed Karim Abdel Gawad, raising concerns that a long season was finally catching up with the world champion.
But Gawad silenced the doubters by annihilating Nick Matthew the following day, who admitted that retirement may not be far away after his failure to keep up with the speed and agility of a man ten years his junior.
Ahead of the final day’s play it was Marwan ElShorbagy, though, who looked to be in pole position to progress to the semi-finals following two victories, but his defeat to Gawad left three players on two wins each after Rösner beat Matthew. Consqeuently, ElShorbagy was eliminated with the lowest games-won percentage as Gawad topped the group.
“I didn’t have the best start to this tournament,” admitted the 25-year-old, whose meteoric rise this campaign has seen him pick up PSA World Series titles in Qatar and New York to back up his world championship success. “It was my first experience on this court and I just got too excited, and didn’t start the right way.
“But afterwards, I didn’t feel the pressure was on – I just wanted to enjoy playing in such a great venue and be on court as much as I can.
“Playing here is an unforgettable experience,” he added. “This venue is just great for our sport, and we need more of these kind of tournaments.”
After a season of struggle and the loss of his world no. 1 ranking, it was a relaxed and rejuvenated Mohamed ElShorbagy who chatted to the media on the eve of the tournament, and the player who stepped out on court seemed back to his imperious best.
ElShorbagy won a high-quality tie against James Willstrop on the opening night, while Ali Farag – who was only summoned to Dubai as a late replacement for the injured Ramy Ashour – pulled off the second shock in the men’s draw by beating defending champion Gregory Gaultier.
The fans really took to Farag, who showed both tremendous skill and remarkable sportsmanship when pushing ElShorbagy all the way in the second match, which lasted almost an hour – almost unheard-of in a best-of-three encounter.
With ElShorbagy through to face Rösner, it came down to a winner-takes-all clash between Farag and Willstrop after an out-of-sorts Gaultier crashed out, and it was the Englishman – showing the trademark accuracy that gave him the nickname ‘The Marksman’ – who came from behind to set up a blockbuster semi-final against Gawad.
“I’ve had a quieter time on tour the last couple of months having already qualified, so I knew I had the legs and the mental freshness,” revealed Willstrop afterwards.
“This is such a major tournament for me – and for everyone – and to be in the semi-finals, I couldn’t really have asked for anything more.”
Like Marwan ElShorbagy, top seed Camille Serme needed to win her final group stage encounter to progress to the semi-finals – even though she had already won her first two matches. But the Frenchwoman held firm where ElShorbagy faltered by showing the mental strength that has become legendary on the 2016-17 PSA World Series, saving three match balls against last year’s runner-up Raneem El Welily in an epic encounter.
She was joined in the semi-finals by the rising star of the women’s game Nouran Gohar, who was just 18 when she made her debut at the Finals last year but failed to emerge from her group.
Now a year older, wiser and stronger, Gohar has become the darling of the Dubai Opera crowd this week with her powerful stroke-making and tactical awareness. She sealed her progression with victory over Alison Waters.
“It’s a dream to make it to the semis in Dubai,” said the teenager, who balances her professional squash career with an engineering degree.
“I’m really happy that I get to play [at least] one more match on this beautiful court.”
However, Gohar may have her work cut out beating Laura Massaro tonight, with the third seed so far demonstrating the qualities that saw her take home the highest cheque ever awarded to a female squash player in Dubai last year.
Victory over Sarah-Jane Perry in her second match confirmed Massaro’s progression, but she couldn’t do her compatriot a favour on Thursday as she went down to a determined Nour El Sherbini, the reigning world champion who scraped through by the skin of her teeth having lost to Perry in her opener.
The cream have really risen to the top in the women’s event, with four of the top five seeds reaching the semi-finals, and El Sherbini’s clash with Serme has all the ingredients to be something special.
The semi-finals of the PSA Dubai World Series Finals take place at Dubai Opera on 9 June, with the final on 10 June
 Karim Abdel Gawad (EGY) v  James Willstrop (ENG)
 Simon Rösner (GER) v  Mohamed ElShorbagy (EGY)
 Camille Serme (FRA) v  Nour El Sherbini (EGY)
 Nouran Gohar (EGY) v  Laura Massaro (ENG)