by Matt Lombardi
The 2016-17 PSA season is nearing its conclusion, but things are ending with a bang. The PMI Bellevue Classic, a PSA men’s tournament, will be held just outside Seattle, May 14-20, and directed by Shabana Khan. Watch live on SquashTV, May 16-20. It is earning a place in the history books as the most lucrative sixteen-player event ever staged. The $150,000 purse is due in large part to the backing of title sponsor Pacific Market International and Bellevue-based software giant Microsoft.
Bellevue has made squash history before. In the fall of 2015 it hosted the first Men’s World Championship played on U.S. soil. Parallels to that tournament will resonate in the memories of players and fans next week. Here are three things to look for as the tournament unfolds:
Gaultier the Great
Thirty-four-year-old Frenchman Gregory Gaultier reached the pinnacle of his career in Bellevue when he won the 2015 World Championship there, after having lost in the final on four previous occasions. He returns as the hottest player on the tour: he’s currently on a 23-match PSA winning streak dating back to January, when he lost in the final of the Tournament of Champions. Over that period he’s won five events, including the British Open and, most recently, last week’s Grasshopper Cup in Zurich, which he took without dropping a game.
Gaultier is clearly one of the greats of his generation—over the past decade he’s never been ranked lower than sixth in the world—but his late-career surge is elevating his status even further. He seems to have reined in a wayward temper that would sometimes hurt his play. For the past few months he’s been the picture of cool confidence, and his opponents have suffered the consequences. Going into the tournament, he’s clearly the man to beat.
One consequence of Bellevue’s record-breaking prize money is that the qualifying rounds will be of exceptionally high caliber. Some of the game’s most accomplished players, including Omar Mosaad, the man Gaultier beat in the World Championship final, will have to come through the qualies.
Mosaad is in the midst of a slump that’s seen his ranking drop from world No.3 to No.32. Bellevue, the site of one of the best performances of his career, would seem to be an ideal place for him to turn his fortunes around. Over the course of the 2015 World Championship, the “gentle giant” came to be a crowd favorite. If he can win a few matches and develop some momentum, he’s likely to once again have a boisterous rooting section behind him.
Other players in the qualifying bracket include twenty-year-old Diego Elias, a two-time world junior champion and one of squash’s most promising young players; Mathieu Castagnet, who a year ago was ranked sixth in the world before being sidelined by injury; and Mazen Hesham, one of the tour’s most gifted and unorthodox shot-makers, who’s also rebounding from injury. Those are only a few names in a loaded field. It wouldn’t be surprising if one of the qualifiers progresses deep into the main draw.
The Enigma of Ramy
Squash fans are filled with excitement and anxiety whenever Ramy Ashour’s name appears in the draw. Ashour had to retire injured in the last time he was in town, and injury has continued to cast a shadow over the career of the game’s transcendent talent. Of the five tournaments he’s entered this season, he’s won one (the Hong Kong Open back in August), lost in one(the Windy City Open in March), and retired due to injury in three, including the final of the World Championship.
Bellevue’s smaller draw means that it takes one less match to reach the finals than in a thirty-two player field, and that reduced wear and tear could prove beneficial to Ashour’s fragile body. A potential dream final would match him in good health against the man of the moment, Gaultier. Ashour has dominated their long and entertaining rivalry. If Gaultier could notch a win, it would further cement the Frenchman’s case to be counted among the all-time greats.