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Coppinger makes finals in Detroit to move up to career-best ranking

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South Africa’s leading squash player, Steve Coppinger has hit the court running this year and equalled his 2013 career-best world ranking of 16th, writes Mark Etheridge.
The Capetonian, schooled at Hilton College in KwaZulu-Naal and now based in Orlando, United States started this year’s schedule with the Tournament of Champions in Manhattan, New York and kept his campaign on the road at the Motor City Open in Detroit.
Next up are the Swedish Open starting on Thursday and then it’s back across the Atlantic Ocean to the Windy City Open in Chicago in early February.
Coppinger took time out to take Road to Rio 2016 readers through his latest tournaments.
‘The first tournament of the New Year, the Tournament of Champions, was a squash fan’s delight. Spectacular as ever, taking place in the iconic Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, this year’s edition served up some fierce competition and provided a glimpse of a shift in dominance from the old guard.
‘Having had a core of players dominate the latter stages of major tournaments for the past 5 years with remarkable consistency and undoubtedly immense skill, the ToC this year has highlighted the intent of a number of younger players not content with just knocking on their door.
‘Mohamed el Shorbagy’s rise to the top was by no means under the radar and he now well deservedly sits on top of the squash world at pole position in the rankings. There have been some big movers on the fringe of the top few which points towards a very exciting 2015. ‘Shorbagy himself had to fight tooth and nail to get past Swiss Nicolas Mueller, Nick Matthew escaped by the skin of his teeth (or narrower) in his second round-nail biter with Omar Mosaad. Miguel Rodrigues has stamped his name into the greats of the game with two epic wins over Pete Barker and Gregory Gaultier in his typically flamboyant but all of a sudden severely lethal style. Matthieu Castagnet has been on the charge in the last six to 12 months and it took a very sharp Simon Rosner, himself making his mark in the upper echelons, to stop him.
‘Tarek Momen is another who is a constant threat to anyone and he’s illuminating the tour with his rapid-fire open style of play. This year’s tour provides a perfect platform for these names to shift gears from being dangerous outsiders to the players that are genuinely campaigning for the major titles.
‘This is not of course to dismiss the likes of Amr Shabana, Gregory Gaultier, Nick Matthew and James Willstrop. We all know what they are capable of and have seen time and again the levels that they raise themselves to when the occasion demands. They now have a hungry pack yapping at their heels and will have to bring their best not just to compete with each other but to keep getting chances to do so. And so the gauntlet has been set, let’s see what the year has in store for the fans and players alike.
‘My challenge is to join the surge of the “new wave”, rather than be swept aside by it, and build on some encouraging recent results. My own campaign at the ToC was halted in the first round by the strong German Rosner who went on to a quarter-final berth and showed how he has recently joined the world’s top 10.
‘I can draw positives from the encounter and certainly look forward to our next battle but it always makes a world of difference being able to get over that line in the end.
Moving on and what an eventful tournament the Motor City Open turned out to be. Beginning the day after the finals of the ToC in New York has put major strain on the top seeds in the past editions and this year they suffered again as there were withdrawals from the top two seeds, El Shorbagy and Shabana.
‘This was obviously a worrying scenario for the sponsors, organisers and indeed the PSA even though it seemed somewhat inevitable given the proximity of the tournaments. The players themselves can’t shift all the blame though as they were perfectly aware of the lay of the land before entering each event and given their respective World Rankings will surely have expected to play deep into New York before starting Detroit’s campaign immediately afterwards.
‘Fortunately there was no shortage of drama for the Birmingham Athletic Club’s enthusiastic crowd to lap up during the week. This is one of the few events on the tour where there is a packed gallery for six straight days from the first round of qualifying right through to the finals. The unique, inclusive member participation in the tournament provides a rare atmosphere to play in front of and makes for a rather special tournament. Now with the top two seeds out of the picture there was a huge opportunity for the rest of the draw to cash in on some valuable ranking points and a shot at an “almost major” trophy.
‘My tournament got off to a shaky start against the seventh seed and El Shorbagy as neither of us seemed able to find a rhythm on court. He fared slightly better and took a 2-0 lead before I was able to get a game on the scoreboard. The third looked as if he was going to wrap it up when he secured three match balls at 10-7, fortunately I was able to somehow find myself back in the game at 10-10 after a few frantic points including a drop that only just made it above the dreaded tin.
‘How fine are the margins between winning and losing in sport? Once I had levelled it gave me a new surge of energy and he seemed to suffer from having been so close, I was able to close out the fouth and then overturn a small early deficit to book my place in the quarter-finals.
‘The next two rounds I got through two more five-setters; against a still stiff Pete Barker of England who the week before had a punishing encounter with Miguel Rodriguez in New York, and Hong Kong’s Max Lee who managed an impressive win against Omar Mosaad in the quarter-finals coming back from 9-5 down in the fifth while cramping.
‘Max’s efforts in the semis were immense. He started cramping once again in the fourth, somehow hiding his pain from me and going on to win that game to set up a 5th. He couldn’t suppress it any longer though as at 2-2 in the fifth he literally broke down in pain and could not stand unsupported.
‘Despite this ridiculous state, he still managed to get a lead on 5-3 with some brave racquet work and causing no small amount of nerves in me as I knew I had to win from this position but couldn’t seem to find a clear way ahead. It proved too much of an obstacle however for Max and I managed to get over the line, then having to lift him off the floor to receive his standing ovation and pass him on to some volunteers to help him off the court.
‘This set up a final with my training partner Miguel Rodriguez of Colombia who himself had a phenomenal run in New York reaching the semis after defeating WR2 Greg Gaultier. We know each other’s games extremely well which makes it easier and more difficult in different ways. I knew my plan and stuck to it throughout the match, I had to control proceedings against him as he thrives on frantic, rapid squash. We alternated the first fourth games in over 100 minutes of intense, punishing squash.
‘I had my chances in the fourth game to take a commanding lead but it seemed that whenever I was on the verge of streaking ahead there would be an untimely error or series of points that ended up going his way and keeping him in the hunt. It was enough unfortunately for him to hang in and then make his own big push at the end of the fourth to level at 2-2.
‘The fifth was cruel for me as it was one of those games that just kept getting further out of reach, I felt that I was the fresher (although by no means fresh) and should have the advantage but the points just raced away and soon Miguel was claiming his biggest title to date and completing a remarkable month that’s seen him rise to No6 in the world.
‘The result has brought me up a few places too to No16 which equals my personal best from 2013 and with it some valuable momentum to help reach higher in the next few months.’

www.worldsquash.org


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