By RJ Mitchell
New Zealand squash legend Ross Norman has backed Paul Coll to bounce back from his indifferent return to action following the resumption of the PSA World Tour in September.
The World No.5 ended last term as, arguably, the Tour’s form player, having claimed a first ever victory over World No.1 Mohamed ElShorbagy at the Windy City Open where he also defeated World No.3 Karim Abdel Gawad and took a 2-0 lead over No.2 Ali Farag only to hit the proverbial brick wall in the final and come up just short.
These results combined with Coll’s run to the World Championship final last November and the clear development of a front court attack and improvements on the forehand side, borne of a swing modification masterminded by coach Rob Owen, all suggested that when the tour resumed at Manchester in September, the Kiwi looked certain to break into the rankings top four.
Yet it has not worked out that way and while Coll showed up well in a five-game semi-final defeat by ElShorbagy in Manchester, he failed to make it out of the group stages at the CIB World Tour Finals in Cairo.
Losing two of his three pool matches with the second of these defeats at the hands of Welshman Joel Makin leaving Coll frustrated after a final error handed the Golden Tiger a shockingly one-sided victory.
That was compounded by a five-game defeat at the hands of rising star Mostafa Asal in the quarter finals of the CIB Egyptian Open last time out and now Coll faces another tricky opening assignment at the Qatar Classic next week when he faces world No.12 Mohamed Abouelghar in the opening round in Doha.
Yet former World Champion Norman, the man who ended Jahangir Khan’s eponymous 555 match winning streak, is backing his fellow Kiwi to bounce back with what could be a pivotal victory: “Paul is not the type of guy who dwells on negativity and I, 100%, expect him to bounce back strongly in Qatar.
“Obviously he had some fantastic results at the end of last season, like beating Mo ElShorbagy for the first time in Chicago, he had real momentum and since the restart the results have not been what he would have hoped for to build on that, but I have every confidence they will come.
“For so long he has been focussing on those above him and of course there is a new generation coming through and the defeat against young [Mostafa] Asal in the Egyptian Open is a warning to Paul of that.
“But during my career I always tried to look forward and it didn’t matter how big a win I had just had; I knew that the next day it was history and I had to move on.
“After I beat Jahangir to win the world title in 1986 and end his great winning streak, sure it was the best result of my career but in terms of ranking points, that result wouldn’t have mattered a damn if I had lost the next four tournaments in the first round.
“For Paul he must focus on his next match and beating [Mohamed] Abouelghar is all that matters now but like I say I know the type of bloke Paul is, he is a positive guy and he will come through this.
“You know as a professional that sometimes you have a bad day at the office and you just weren’t on your game as you would have hoped but at the same time, and everyone has dips in form, when that happened to me I always went back to basics.
“If the results are not what you would expect, then you look at the foundations of your game and if you get them right everything else takes care of itself.
“In my day there were tournaments every week virtually. You could be playing the German Open one week, then it was the French, the Spanish, the Monte Carlo Classic, and staleness was a real problem because of over play.
“You knew it would happen and it was horrible, but you just had to grit your teeth and play through it. But with over a fortnight in between the Egyptian Open and Qatar, Paul will have had extra time to prepare for Abouelghar and he will be good to go.
“I don’t think there is much doubt that Paul had planned to come out the blocks on the front foot at the very least and it hasn’t quite happened like that, but now he needs things to start happening results wise so that he can rebuild the momentum he had last season.”
When it comes to next week’s Qatar Classic, which will start for Coll with a much-anticipated second round clash with ‘The Bullet’ on Tuesday, November 3, Norman admits that victory is vital to his fellow New Zealander.
“That first match with Abouelghar, whichever way you look at it, is looking like a big one for Paul, a real must win. Obviously, Qatar isn’t that far from Egypt and the conditions will suit Abouelghar, but I have no doubt that Paul will be very fired up for that match and he will know what is at stake.
“Obviously Abouelghar has dropped out of the top 10 and has not played since the Manchester Open so that has to be a plus for Paul, If he can get that win under his belt I would expect him to come through the next round and then he will likely face the winner of Joel Makin and Tarek Momen, if it goes to seeding, which would be very interesting.
“That said if these two meet then I am sure they will be far from fresh by the time they would face Paul in the quarters, so for once Paul may have the edge on freshness and whoever he gets from the two of these guys he will be very motivated.”
Turning his attention to Coll’s fiery World Tour Finals encounter with the flame -haired Welshman, the astute Norman has a very interesting take on an encounter that proved to be a surprisingly one-sided win for Makin: “Obviously, the match Paul had with Joel Makin at the World Tour Finals was a sore one for him and one he would have been disappointed to lose. It is always an interesting situation when one player has been working under a coach, like Joel had under Rob Owen and then another comes along, as Paul did, and the first guy moves on.
Paul Coll (left) against Joel Makin (right) at the CIB PSA World Tour Finals
“I never had a coach so this was something that didn’t bother me, but I could see a conflict of interest between the players, as squash players are by nature extremely competitive individuals. It’s hard not read between the lines to guess how that all panned out, but Joel has gone his own way and there is no doubt that when the two of them meet, judging by their last encounter, there is something extra on it.
“Looking back, I think that Paul had real problems with Joel at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and had to come all the way from two games down to edge a fifth set tie break that took around 100 minutes and their styles are not dissimilar.
“So if the two of them are back against each other in Qatar, and of course Joel could face Tarek Momen in the previous round, whom he beat at the World Tour Finals the last time they met, that could be some match and it would have some extra edge.”
Yet while it seemed only a matter of time before Coll broke the Egyptian stronghold of the top four ranking spots, the setbacks in the land of the Pharaohs in particular have meant the New Zealand No.1 must reclaim lost ground rankings wise.
A point not lost on New Zealand’s only men’s World Champion: “It is particularly important for Paul to get to that No.4 world ranking. Until he does and as long as he remains stuck at No.5 then he will also be facing one of the top Egyptians in the quarter finals.
“Unfortunately with what has happened at the Egyptian Open in particular, where Paul has gone out in the last eight Tarek Momen, who is the guy he is closest to in the top four, has made the final, then the gap will be stretched quite a way and Paul has work to do to close that gap again.”