By RJ Mitchell
In an interview with the PSA, super-coach Rob Owen has delivered a fascinating post mortem on last month’s CIB Black Ball Open while also assessing how the falling of the cards in Cairo will impact when the PSA World Tour resumes with the El Gouna International Open later this month.
Owen, who coaches World No.4 Paul Coll and World No.6 Sarah-Jane Perry, was at his most concise as he shot from the hip to discuss who he believes can look forward with the most confidence.
Despite his defeat in the semi-final of the Black Ball Open, Owen believes that World No.1 Ali Farag is still the man to beat while Marwan ElShorbagy’s eventual triumph last month and his epic quarter-final encounter with Coll have made Owen adamant that they are both very much in the vanguard of Farag’s pursuers.
The former World No.20 was also forensic in his assessment of Fares Dessouky, who came from match-ball down to overturn Farag in the semi-finals and defeat the World No.1 for the second successive time, while the Englishman reckons former World No.1 Mohamed ElShorbagy will face a grim battle to regain his former dominance.
Owen said: “I still thank [Ali] Farag is the guy to beat at the moment. Mohamed [ElShorbagy] is regressing right now as he hasn’t played in a year so for me Ali is still the guy to beat, and he should have beaten Dessouky being 2-1 up and match balls at 10-6.
“I am not sure what happened and it’s hard to explain and I don’t know if Ali would be able to explain it as that match was over. It really was one of life’s mysteries, for me the fifth was a very poor game and I think that was because Ali was still thinking about the fourth.
“So, looking at the main contenders for El Gouna, based on the current form which we saw at the Black Ball the three best players on the tour are Ali, Marwan [ElShorbagy] and Paul [Coll].
“I thought Paul and Marwan were a level above with the match they played but they brought out the best in each other and it’s hard to judge the others in this respect.
“While Farag gave [Mostafa] Asal a lesson and was out playing Dessouky before he threw the match away, and I believe in the circumstances and with the physical discomfort Marwan was clearly suffering he would have won the tournament if he had beaten Fares.”
Despite Dessouky’s epic ‘back-from-the-death’ semi-final victory over Farag, Owen says there are still questions to be answered over the Alexandrian’s mental fortitude when the going gets tough: “I know Dessouky has now beaten Farag twice but to me he still has huge mental frailties and if Paul had drawn Dessouky and played him like he did Marwan there is no way Dessouky would have beaten him. He just wouldn’t have had the physicality to cope or the mental strength to do what Marwan did.
“When it came to the final you saw what Marwan did, he was there for the taking and I thought Dessouky never got into Marwan physically, there were way too many short rallies, and I was disappointed in Dessouky really.
“It was all too quick, and Marwan just held on and used his experience and that is because Dessouky is a bit of a one trick pony and if his A-Game isn’t working things can deteriorate quickly.
“When things are great, he can look a million dollars but if the going gets tough and when he is under real pressure, he makes errors.
“The problem with Dessouky is that you’ve got to be a hell of a squash player to put him under that pressure but if you can match him, he will fold.”
With Marwan ElShorbagy’s victory in Cairo backing up his World Tour Finals success at the start of the season and elder brother Mohamed’s shock quarter-final loss to flame haired Welshman Joel Makin, Owen reckons the shifting of the sands may have occurred between the brothers when it comes to their squash fortunes.
“Marwan played as well as he could in that match [against Coll]. He is just a very clever squash player, and he is a traditional type of player who hits great lines and lengths and in fact he hits the best length in the world, and he just does the simple things very well.
“He is also very deceptive and when he is under pressure, he hits great lines, and he is exceptionally accurate. Basically, on the form from the Black Ball, Marwan is a better squash player than Mohamed right now.
“That said, I am not sure that Mohamed was at 100%, so I don’t know if he had a niggle, but he just didn’t look right to me. That was not the level you expect from Mohamed and I have not seen him play like that for a while and physically he was bending over doubling up quite early in the match and Mohamed is not one to do that.
“But it was Mohamed’s first tournament back in Egypt and perhaps there was a lot of extra pressure on his shoulders, but he just didn’t seem right to me.”
When it came to the match of the tournament at the Black Ball, Owen was in no mood to sit on the fence as he cited the 96-minute quarter-final epic between a cramping Marwan ElShorbagy and Coll for a glowing critique: “It was the best quality match of the tournament by some way, and I have spoken to many people including Jonah Barrington, and they all highlighted it as the best match and clearly Paul pushed Marwan to the absolute limits.
“Marwan was fantastic, and I haven’t seen him dig that deep for a while, but it was a fantastic squash match and Paul’s only issue in the fifth set was that he went a bit passive when it really mattered.
“He knew that he had Marwan tired but then he just went that bit passive pushed the balls down the wall and all Marwan had to do was cover from side to side and not get to the front and it was a bit of shame really.
Marwan ElShorbagy in action against Paul Coll at the CIB Black Ball Open
“But their quarter-final was just a great advert for squash and one that had everything. Tactics, physicality the lot, everything you could have wanted and more.”
When it came to Owen’s hopes for his own charge, Coll, the West Warwicks Sports Club based super-coach is confident the Kiwi is still on an upward trajectory while also revealing how hard it has been for the duo to continue their coaching relationship during a global pandemic.
“Paul’s technique looked really solid, he was relaxed, and he played a lot of shots and he played very well against [Gregory] Gaultier and also against [Nicolas] Mueller in his opening round and I felt that Paul just looked like the complete player.
“He looked like he had added to his game and from a coach’s perspective, which is really pleasing, there looked like there were no weaknesses.
“When you factor in the point that I am having to coach Paul by Zoom and tell him to relax the wrist or adjust the grip and to follow through, all this has over Zoom, well it hasn’t been easy.
“But he is constantly working on things and Paul’s short game is getting better and better and when he plays well, he looks like the real deal.
“Clearly to the front he is really coming on and that is where you will hurt people. It’s a long way to the front and the key is taking it to the front when your opponent isn’t quite sure if you are going to go there.
“But I’ve given him the weapons now and it’s a question of him having the confidence to use them. It’s not his natural game and that’s what happened in the fifth when he needed to keep being positive.”
The El Gouna International takes place May 20-28 and will be shown live on SquashTV.