The two Yorkshiremen – who have been sharing the spoils at the top of squash for about a decade, and not always entirely harmoniously – go into this PSA International 50 event at the East Wintergarden venue with three titles apiece.
Top seed and World No2 Matthew – who reached the final of the North American Open just over a week ago – will be looking for his fourth title on the trot, having beaten Willstrop 11-7, 11-8, 11-9 in last year’s final.
He faces a tough tie in the first round in the form of Miguel Angel Rodriguez – the 27-year-old Colombian renowned for his amazing court coverage and spectacular full-length dives, and who took Matthew to a marathon five games in the first round of last year’s North American Open.
If he can overcome Rodriguez’s lightning speed, Matthew, 32, will face South African Steve Coppinger or Alister Walker, who decided a couple of years ago to represent his country of birth, Botswana, after a fallout with England Squash in late 2010.
Then – if he recovers from an injury worry that saw him pull out yesterday’s Kuwait PSA Cup quarter-final – fourth seed Peter Barker should lie in wait in Thursday’s last four. That’s if the ties go as the seeding forecasts and Barker beats a qualifier and then World No12 Tom Richards, also playing a qualifier in the first round.
On the other side of the 16-man draw, Willstrop, 29, begins his tournament against wildcard Englishman Charles Sharpes. And, presuming he prevails, he faces the winner of what promises to be a close encounter between world numbers 15 and 16 – Harlow-born Daryl Selby, fresh from a surprise straight-games victory over Matthew on Monday in Kuwait, and German Simon Rosner.
Aiming to upset the home favourites will be rising star Mohamed El Shorbagy. The 22-year-old Egyptian, now resident in Bristol, earned a scholarship to train under the tutelage of squash great Jonah Barrington at the prestigious Millfield School, and then a scholarship at UWE – where he studies business.
In the first round, El Shorbagy faces a qualifier from this weekend’s Qualifying at the Wimbledon Racquets and Fitness Club, and then the winner of the opening game of the tournament – another qualifier against Adrian Grant, the world No17, making the short hop over the river from his Greenwich home.
If El Shorbagy and Willstrop continue their impressive form, they will then face each other on Thursday in a mouth-watering repeat of both last year’s semi-final – which Willstrop won 3-1 – and December’s semi-final at the World Championship in Qatar – in which El Shorbagy triumphed 11-8 in the fifth after a gruelling 112 minutes (consider that rough equivalent to 7-5 in the fifth set of a five-hour tennis match).
This encounter would, given Matthew’s probable progression, set up one of two enthralling prospects for Friday night’s final; the reigning master against the pretender to the throne – Matthew v El Shorbagy – or the Real/Barca, Federer/Nadal, Frazier/Ali of squash – Matthew v Willstrop.
Whatever the outcome, one thing’s (pretty much) for certain; the spectacular arched glass East Wintergarden venue on the banks of the Thames will provide a fittingly spectacular showcase for some world-class squash.
And hopefully the tournament will give a much-deserved boost to squash’s profile, as it strives for inclusion into the Olympic family from 2020 (having recently gained endorsement from a certain Mr Federer, no less).
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