Britain’s best squash players will compete for a prize fund totalling $125,500 (£84,500) at the CIB Black Ball Open in Cairo this week.
The grand prize, awarded equally to the winner of the women’s tournament (currently underway, final on 12 December) and the men’s (final on 18 December), will be contested by 64 athletes representing 16 countries.
Of those 64, ten British players are featuring, with world number six Sarah-Jane Perry and world number nine Joel Makin thought to have the best chance of going the distance.
However, the odds of both of them bringing home the grand prize are long.
While Perry’s chances of winning have seemingly improved after pre-tournament favourite Nour El Sherbini suffered a shock quarterfinal loss, Makin is likely a long-shot.
Clear favourite to win the men’s tournament is 28-year-old Harvard-graduate Ali Farag. The Egyptian is world number one and is in good form after winning the Qatar Classic last month.
“Farag is setting the standard in the men’s,” said Norfolk-born former world number one James Willstrop.
Nottingham-born player Declan James agreed with Willstrop’s assessment of Farag. “Ali will be without doubt the player to beat in Cairo,” the 27-year-old said.
Farag made global headlines in 2017 when he and Nour El Tayeb became the first husband and wife in sporting history to win the same major singles title on the same day. Farag is well respected off the court by his fellow professionals. “He’s a great ambassador and such a good guy,” said Willstrop.
If they are to challenge Farag, both Willstrop and James will have to overcome tough first-round opponents.
World number 24 James will face world number seven Diego Elias. Although James knows the Peruvian represents a formidable challenge, he is confident in his own abilities.
“Diego is an amazing squash player but not without weaknesses like we all have,” James said. “If I can get through that then I would be playing a level which could take me deep into the event.”
Willstrop is a little more circumspect ahead of his clash with world number 19 Zahed Salem. “At 37 years old I can’t really believe I’m still playing,” he said.
Now ranked 18th in the world, Willstrop has found that, although he still has a hunger to win, he is enjoying his squash more now than when he was the world’s best player.
“I remember what it was like. It was intense and it wasn’t always fun. You get over-revved and you’re thinking about too much, it’s all about success and winning. It becomes a bit of a problem.
“Now I’ve got a family and a nice bit of perspective. It’s all about enjoying it and enjoying life.”
2024 Paris: Breakdancing, But No Squash
Willstrop’s relaxed demeanour is reflected in his response to confirmation that breakdancing shall be one of the new sports at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Recently, squash legends like Jahangir Khan and Michelle Martin have expressed their outrage at breakdancing’s inclusion while squash toils in the Olympic wilderness.
Willstrop, however, was more diplomatic in his reaction: “If it gets people doing sport, let’s be happy about that. If it’s getting people doing breakdancing and being active and being healthy in a competitive sport, I’ve got no problem with it being on the Olympic program.”
Willstrop did admit, though, that it was “bloody deflating” to see such a well-established sport consistently overlooked by the IOC: “We’ve worked so hard to try to get there, they must know by now how much we want to be there.”
Ultimately, though, both Willstrop and James agree that they are not going to waste any time worrying over their sport’s Olympic snubs.
“We don’t need to be included in a system that doesn’t want us, so let’s just keep doing our thing. I believe we have the respect of the other major sports and the public for what we do on the court, which is what’s most important,” said James.
“Squash is a great sport with some of the greatest athletes in the world and if that’s not good enough for people then that’s really sad, but I don’t think we should be losing sleep over it,” concluded Willstrop.
The women’s tournament is currently underway, with Perry taking on New Zealand’s Joelle King in the semifinal this evening. The men’s tournament begins on Sunday and runs until Friday the 18th December.
Viewers worldwide can watch coverage of the Black Ball Open via streaming service SquashTV.