MANCHESTER/KARACHI - Ramy Ashour, the strongest favourite to retain the world squash championship in two decades, began his title defence with a scare during which he almost went two games down. The brilliantly gifted Egyptian has gone 45 matches unbeaten but slipped to a game and 8-10 down to Laurens Jan Anjema, the former top ten Dutchman, before winning his 46th by 10-12, 13-11, 11-3, 11-4.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's lone representation in the World Open Squash Championship was over as Nasir Iqbal was dumped out from the event by Egyptian Karim Darwish in straight games 11-6, 11-6, 11-5 in just 28 minutes. Pakistan squash team head coach Jamshed Gul said it was sheer bad luck that Nasir had to face Karim in the first round match. “Had Nasir face the same opponent in the later round, there might be better chances of winning the tie against the top ranked player. It was a learning experience for Nasir and he would bounce back in the next events. He needs more matches and practice to perform at the highest level,” Jamshed concluded.
Two tight little front court rallies on those two critical points in the second game got Ashour back to 10-all; had his control failed him on either occasion he would have been left with a mountain to climb. The world champion fled from the arena after his fright, eventually to be cornered by only one journalist who elicited a brief description of his predicament.
"LJ (Laurens Jan) played very well - but it's always like that. I have not had any player who didn't play well against me for two or three years," Ashour said. "So that's how it is. Every player plays his best against me, which is kind of hard for me, but at the same time it motivates me."
This was though rather more than a match in which an outsider played well. Not long ago Anjema was in the world's top ten, only falling from the leading 16 because he "wanted to go away and change a few things." To face so able a competitor in the opening encounter while trying to justify a special billing and also accustoming oneself to new conditions was inherently risky.
Anjema hit the ball to good lines, cut it off well, and was dangerous when sensing a sniff of an opening. He knew which rallies to play out long as well, but from midway in the third game he seemed to lose some spring in his legs. Nevertheless his run from 6-8 in the second game to hold two game balls at 10-8 was extraordinarily dangerous, bringing a hum of surprise from the crowd, and scream and some yells from Ashour.
But instead of panicking the modern era's most gifted wielder of a racket conjured a perfect counter-drop to Anjema's backhand attempt to reach 9-10, and then pulled off a gambler's cross court drop to reach parity. "He's one of the greats, for sure," Anjema said. "He plays with a nonchalance which even Jahangir or Jansher Khan didn't have. And he invents new shots. I guess we'll never know what might have happened if I had gone two games up. But he is one of the kind who lifts himself in that situation."
Earlier Ashour's compatriot, Amr Shabana, the four times former world champion, started with an 11-6, 11-7, 11-7 win over Adrian Grant, a former top ten Englishman, while Ashour's predecessor as world champion Nick Matthew, started with an 11-5, 11-4, 11-4 win over Zahed Mohamed, an Egyptian qualifier. Later the world runner-up, Mohamed El Shorbagy, Ashour's Egyptian compatriot, also survived a scare, going two games to one down and 6-7 down in the fourth game to Adrian Waller, the world number 35 from England. El Shorbagy saved the fourth game after Waller was penalised a conduct point for persistent dissent on game point, and went on to win 11-6, 6-11, 6-11, 11-7, 11-7.