Squash Match Analysis: Fares Dessouky vs. Marwan El Shorbagy – 2021 CIB Black Ball Open Final

The 2021 Commercial International Bank (CIB) Black Ball Open installment of the PSA World Tour concluded with an edgy final between Alexandrian Squash titans Fares Dessouky and Marwan El Shorbagy. The draw was somewhat unique, with the usual suspects Mohamed El Shorbagy, Tarek Momen, Paul Coll, Karim Abdel Gawad, and Ali Farag eliminated in the quarter finals and Semis at the hands of an in form Dessouky and a determined Marwan.

Battle hardened and ready to give it everything, the defending champion Dessouky stepped into the glass court with an expressionless Marwan, who broke through the 70 minute long resistance of Joel Makin the previous night. The stage was set, and the spectators of Cairo leaned forward as the referee called LOVE ALL to commence the final.

First Game – A Defensive Dance

The gravity of the event forced both players to remain conservative as they found a tempo to sync with. The rallies were more calculated than explosive, and the initial 10 points between them featured good quality hitting. Wide cross courts and tight lengths above the cut line were commonplace as both Fares and Marwan were careful not to hit anything short or loose. Marwan kept the ball on the backhand side of the court as he stayed acutely aware of Fares’s lethal forehand that either offers no reaction time or sends the ball rolling along the floor out of the nick.

This rather defensive strategy worked in Marwan’s favor as it give little opportunity for Fares to attack the ball and kept him in retrieval mode. As the rallies progressed, the court got wider for each player until eventually one could not make a good return. While Dessouky and El Shorbagy remained fairly point to point until 7 all, Marwan managed to score 4 points in row, winning the first game at 11-7.

Winning the first game in a best of five match is an ideal start, especially for a final of a PSA platinum event. The way the first game played out however showed that Fares and Marwan were feeling slightly threatened by each other’s ability to kill and played defensively. When both play defensively, the difference between a winning shot and an unforced error starts to reduce. Due to such tactics, it appears Marwan and Fares were trying to not lose the first game rather than win it. Is this the right strategy to adopt?

Defensive squash tends to work well against offensive squash. Offensive squash also works well against attacking squash. Recall that sometimes offense is the best defense. But defensive squash against defensive squash tends to create uncertainty within both players. If Fares recognized that Marwan was being defensive, he could have played it to his advantage by applying more pressure. A higher T position and going after volleys may have deferred Marwan’s wide cross courts tactic and forced him to play down the line. Eventually something would have come loose. Knowing that Fares is unstoppable in the front, Marwan played his best lengths to keep him at bay. To counter this, at 7-7, Fares could have thrown in some straight drops to break Marwan’s control of the situation and tempt him to play wide a cross court to which Fares would be waiting to hit his thundering reaction volley.

Second Game – Dessouky Attacks

The pressure was on Fares as Marwan served to start the second game. As the game progressed, this pressure increased and brought out an incredible exhibition of Fares’s retrieval abilities, which were backed up by the deadly finishers that Fares is recognized for. The tempo in this game was much higher as Fares tried to be more aggressive than in Game 1. Neck and neck, Marwan and Fares found themselves at 10-9, when a change of pace had Fares stranded at the T going the long way around Marwan. The referee immediately called a LET, but Marwan rightfully used his review. He had hit a tight medium paced perfect length in response to Fares’s hard cross court.

Fares Dessouky has this great skill in using his follow through to pull himself towards the T. This gives him effortless movement around the court with added momentum. However, in this particular situation, Fares pulled himself deep into the T while the ball was dying in the back, making retrieval difficult for himself, but not impossible. All squash players of this level have retrieval abilities that defy the laws of physics, and referees understand this. Fares’s greater error in this case was asking for a let while standing at the T instead of making an effort to dig up the ball. While he may have gotten away with it initially, the review revealed that in addition to going the wrong way he did not make a genuine effort to get to the ball. Had Fares tried to lunge towards the back, the LET might have remained.

This is an important discussion, as we will see this phenomenon reoccur in the remainder of the match.

Third Game – The fight is on

At 2 down, Fares Dessouky starts making an aggressive climb over the mountain of Marwan El Shorbagy. Fares’s shots were hit hard and with intent, while Marwan managed to earn a string of points using careful set ups and soft hands. Fares took the game at 11-7 and let out of roar of redemption as if to foretell an epic comeback.

This intermittent victory of Dessouky is a combination of two things: 1. Aggressive hard squash that Fares is unstoppable at, and 2. a relatively relaxed Marwan with a 2-0 lead.

Fares may have realized by this point that this is the kind of squash he should have played since Game 1. Marwan in a defensive mindset tends to hit loose returns which Fares can easily send into no man’s land. Marwan’s attitude in Game 3 is only a reflection of human nature. He’s not insane enough to throw away a game in the interest of recovery, but the mind tends to relax after achieving a handsome lead. As Marwan continues to grow, we may see more Nadalistic game play from him putting Nadal’s saying “Play everything as if its Match point” into play.

Fourth Game – Its all happenning

Things are about to get really weird for Fares Dessouky. He starts off strong, playing his best squash and pushing Marwan out of his comfort zone. Marwan is up to the task and also demonstrates what high quality squash looks like where correct shot selection governs. The game proceeds in a point for point fashion, and Fares Dessouky finds himself at Game Point in the fourth, looking good to take it into the fifth.

The score is 10-9 for Fares, and hot rally finds Marwan desperately picking up a vicious drop by Fares on the forehand side. Marwan lodges the ball high on the front wall to give him time to reclaim the T. Fares is in position to attack a ball suspended in air right where he likes it. He now has several options. He could delicately drop it at the front, or he could fire it down the line, or he could hit a winning cross court, or he could play an attacking lob, or he could whack the ball into his leg and lose the point. When you are faced with so many options in an open court with the added pressure of game point, you are very likely to hit it at yourself, as did Fares, bringing the score to 10 all.

At 11-11, we see the most controversial moment of the match. Marwan does a split to reach a low cross court punch by Fares into the forehand side. He lobs it high and sends to the back of the court, but Fares does not bother going after it, convinced that Marwan’s pick up was not good. Marwan shrugs in confusion as the referee forwards the case to the video umpire. A slow motion replay suggested the ball bounced a second time just short of the frame of Marwan’s racket. The commentators saw it as a double bounce. Anyone watching the replay would have said it bounced twice. To everyone’s disbelief, the video referee called it GOOD.

Either the referee pushed the wrong button as it sometimes happens in cricket, or the call was their genuine opinion, we may never know. Does this call for the use of ultra slow motion cameras in squash which extremely high frames per second? More on this later.

This point that Fares lost was not entirely his fault. Yes, he was convinced it was not a good pick up, but if we watch others play, they appeal the pick up but continue playing the rally until there is a clear win. Fares’s decision to stop the rally was the error here, which shows a hint of fatigue and something he should work on. This goes back to the episode about the LET we talked about in Game 2. To all viewers and readers, keep playing until the ref makes a call.

Marwan El Shorbagy won the match in the fourth game at 14-12 on a regulation STROKE. Fares didn’t take it too well while Marwan tossed his racket into the crowd in victorious celebration.

Conclusion – Dont stop till the ref makes a call

While the current rankings tell us that Mohamad El Shorbagy, Ali Farag, Tarek Momen, Paul Coll, and Karim Abdel Gawad are the creme de la creme, there are some players who we know can destroy them on their day. These include Fares Dessouky, Diego Elias, Mustafa Asal, Marwan El Shorbagy, and Saurav Ghosal.

This was Marwan’s day while Fares had his days ploughing through Mosaad, Farag, and Momen in this tournament. When we say it was Marwan’s day, we refer not only to his immaculate playing but also the human error factors on part of the referees.

Controversy is good for the sport as it makes it more exciting and less repetitive. It also highlights the room for improvement and allows the game to evolve in history and technological incorporation. While some fans would argue that reffing in squash needs improvement due to monumental errors made at such high levels, we need to recognize that refs are also participants of the sport and their involvement is what gives it a dynamic character. If refs made 100% correct calls in any sport, we may as well have robots play the game as well. Feel free to comment your opinion on this matter.

Congratulations to Marwan El Shorbagy for winning the 2021 CIB Black Ball Open. It is no doubt one of the most prestigious events in Squash occurring at the epicenter of the modern game. Lets continue to support Squash and push for it to become an Olympic sport.

Watch the Highlights of Fares Dessouky v.s. Marwan El Shorbagy on PSA official Youtube Channel.

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