AL KHOBAR: World number one Ramy Ashour will have the richest payday any squash player has ever had if he regains the World Open title this Thursday in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia.
The brilliant Egyptian will earn $45,600 — part of a record-breaking $327,500 prize fund — in a tournament hosted by the largest Arab country in the Middle East, which partially hopes the tournament will enhance its global image.
With the World Open hosted by a Gulf state for a third time, and Egypt capable of winning it a fourth successive time, the center of influence in squash is shifting still further towards the Middle East.
Among Ashour’s closest rivals are two compatriots: the former world number one squash player Karim Darwish, and Amr Shabana, the defending World Open champion who overcame Ashour in last year’s final in Kuwait.
However, the explosively ambushing attacker was described by his former coach Anthony Hill as “capable of being number one for the next seven years if he wants to be.”
Ashour certainly seems capable of winning his second World Open title, especially as he stated that playing at Al Khobar is like experiencing “a second home.”
The 23-year-old from Cairo may feel that way because the President of the Professional Squash Association, Ziad Al Turki, is the Saudi businessman who set up his sponsorship with ATCO, and who has now attained the World Open for Egypt.
Al Turki also founded the Saudi International Championships at the same Al Khobar venue, where 12 months ago Ashour became year-end world number one before an enthusiastically supportive crowd.
The man he beat in the final was Nick Matthew, the Englishman who is the World Open top seed because he was ranked number one during the qualifying matches that took place in August.
Matthew relinquished his chance of regaining the top spot by focusing on the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, where he became the only squash player to win two gold medals. However, due to the venue being located in the Gulf, it will likely mean that Ashour is currently the unofficial World Open favorite.
It may be the last tournament for two 34-year-old squash greats — David Palmer, the most successful Australian player since the legendary Geoff Hunt nearly three decades ago, and Thierry Lincou, the only Frenchman to have ever won the World Open.
Lincou’s achievement could yet be matched by Gregory Gaultier, the 27-year-old former world number one from Aix-en-Provence, who may be returning to somewhere near his best play after a hip operation he had in August.