Camille Serme capped a “special” 24 hours by fighting back to claim a 2-1 win in her PSA Dubai World Tour Finals opener yesterday, the day after being crowned the PSA Women’s Player of the Year.
The Frenchwoman, the number one seed in Dubai, dropped the opening game at Dubai Opera to England’s Alison Waters yesterday, before rallying back to comfortably win the next to and get her tournament off to the best possible start.
Waters, 33, took the opening set 11-9 but had no answer to Serme who surged back, dropping just eight points in the next two, to claim them 11-5 and 11-3 and overall victory.
Serme, 28, was thrilled to have got off to the perfect start having been honoured at a glittering bash on the eve of the opening day with the women’s award after a breakthrough season.
She became the first Frenchwoman to win the US Open and Tournament of Champions – making her the only women’s player to win two World Series titles this season.
“It was very special for me,” said the world number three of an award she feels proves she is developing.
“A few years ago I won the Most Improved Player (2009) and Young Player (2007, both Women’s Squash Association), so in my mind I was really hoping to get this one day. I had butterflies in my stomach last night and my dad is here with me too, so he was very happy too.”
Serme admitted she also dealt with nerves during her opening game before quickly overcoming them to win.
“I felt a bit nervous,” she added. “I think the event and the venue got in my head a little bit. It’s quite scary. I had to fight. Perhaps I was not playing my best but I thought I had to fight. It’s a special venue and you want to play well, and enjoy it as much as you can.”
Defending champion Gregory Gaultier comes into the PSA World Series Finals on a momentous run of form – yet the veteran Frenchman admits he considered retiring in the off-season following an injury-ravaged 2016.
The Frenchman finally won a coveted World Squash Championship title in 2015 having lost in four previous finals, but he was besieged by two serious injuries the following campaign which left the 34-year-old wondering if enough was enough.
But as he enters squash’s season-ending showpiece in Dubai, retirement plans have been firmly shelved, having won his last six tournaments in a row.
Not only has his run of victories – at the Bellevue Squash Classic, Grasshopper Cup, El Gouna International Squash Open, British Open, Windy City Open and Swedish Open – seen him lift a superb sextet of silverware, Gaultier has won 27 consecutive matches. Of those he’s only dropped a ridiculous six games.
The man they call the French General sits atop the word rankings coming into the final event of the season, and he has no intention of going anywhere.
“The way I was feeling last year, I was so down with all the injuries, I was thinking my body was giving me the signs of paying the price all these years of training and playing,” admitted the man from Aix-en-Provence in the south east of France.
“I feel aches and pains every day. When you play for 30 years your body gives you these signs, but I trained so much, every single day. We modify things at my age, do stuff with less impact but try and get the same results to try and save my body.
“I do a lot of prevention work now to avoid injuries. At the end of the day you can work the best way possible but there’s no rules. If your body says no, it says no.
“But I’m on a special run of form. It’s quite amazing. I won 27 games in a row but I played close to 40 this year and lost only one.”
That one blemish preventing an even more ridiculous winning streak and an unbeaten 2017 was defeat in the final of the Tournament of Champions to up-and-coming Egyptian Karim Gawad in January.
And Gaultier admits his 2016 woes simply inspired him to turn his fortunes around in 2017.
“It’s pure motivation,” he said.
“I had a brilliant 2015 being world champion, but 2016 was very average. I had two very bad injuries that took me away from the squash courts for so long and then I came back from rehab which was tough.
“I think I transformed all these frustrations I have into motivation and then I started to get one win, two wins, three wins and the confidence is up.
“You don’t even think about the fatigue, because I was playing twice as many matches as everyone else and my body was more tired. But psychologically I was very confident and you can forget about the pain.”
In the women’s field, Britain’s Laura Massaro is also back to defend her title having beaten Egypt’s Raneem El Welily in 2016.
Last year’s tournament was played in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa and despite being excited when she heard she would be defending her crown in the impressive surroundings of the Dubai Opera Auditorium this year, she knows she has a job to do.
“Last year at the bottom of the Burj was amazing. To be here in the opera house is unbelievable,” said the 33-year-old Englishwoman.
“We need to enjoy this here, the setting, the press conference, but then tomorrow you just walk into a glass court and block everything else out. That will be the same for everyone.
“The minute you get overawed by the venue, who’s watching, anything outside the box, that’s when you’re in trouble. Take it all in before the tournament then just focus inside that glass box once it kicks off.
“It’s nice to be back, defending my title, and it’s going to be whoever puts the best week together who’ll win. The women’s prizes have been shared out this season and I think everyone will say they feel they have a chance of winning it.”
It’s a tremendous opportunity for lucky losers Ali Farag and Alison Waters. Both players will feature despite not finishing inside the top eight of the Road to Dubai Rankings on the PSA World Tour this year.
Farag replaces injured compatriot Ramy Ashour, while Waters comes in for American Amanda Sobhy who is out with an Achilles injury.
“I’m a bit lucky to be here,” admitted Farag, 25.
“But since I was very young I was watching this tournament from behind the screen and it was a dream of mine to become a part of it. And now that it’s happened it makes me feel very happy and I’m going to make the most of it.
“Hopefully I’ll be here many more times in the future but for now I’m just going to enjoy it and make the most of it.”
England’s Waters, 33, added: “Me and Ali were the last ones to get in but I’m delighted to be here. I watched it last year and was envious of missing out. I’m really excited for the week ahead.”
Gregory Gaultier, 34, has won his last six world tour titles since finishing runner-up at January’s Tournament of Champions in New York and is the overwhelming favourite to defend his crown in Dubai.
His unbeaten run, which could stretch to over 30 matches when the action commences this week in the city (June 6-10), saw him become the sport’s oldest world No1.
In an interview with Sport360.com ahead of the event, Gaultier revealed that his injury-plagued 2016 season was the driving force behind his motivation to return stronger this time around.
Two round robin groups of four will contest the $160,000 Finals at Dubai Opera and Gaultier will have his work cut out in perhaps the toughest of the four quartets.
With only two players qualifying for the semi-finals, Gaultier will be up against three former world No1s in Ramy Ashour, Mohamed El Shorbagy and James Willstrop in the best-of-three format.
Lead image by Christoper Whiteoak.