11:22 am
21 Apr 2024

Pajares Prevails Over Top Seed Crouin To Reach Squash On Fire Final

18 Feb 2024

Spain's world No.20 Iker Pajares delivered a defiant performance to conquer top seed Victor Crouin in an 89-minute classic at the Squash On Fire Open, clinching a fifth-game tie-break 14-12 to advance to the men's final of the PSA World Tour Bronze event in Washington DC.

The Spaniard, who saved two match balls on his way to victory in the deciding game, will play Egypt's Youssef Soliman in the final, while Tinne Gilis and Amina Orfi will face each other in a repeat of last year's title decider after coming through their respective women's semi-finals in straight games.

In what was the final match of the afternoon, it was Pajares who started the quicker of the two players, pushing Crouin into the back two corners with some immaculate lines before looking to find winners in the front two corners. A number of soft errors into the tin from the French No.1 helped Pajares on his way to an 11-5 opening game.

Crouin bounced back in the second, regaining his accuracy down both wings and putting away any loose cross-court shots from his opponent to level the match after 19 minutes. The defending champion subsequently took the lead in the match for the very first time after rattling off six straight points from 8-5 down to claim the third.

Despite the disappointing nature of defeat in the third game, Pajares continued to apply pressure on his opponent in the fourth, moving to an 11-10 lead with some aggressive squash. The No.3 seed pulled out a miraculous dive followed by a backhand drive winner to take the match into a decider.

The see-saw nature of the match continued in the fifth, with Pajares chancing his arm with a string of outrageous winners to go 3-0 up, but Crouin taking six straight points to retake command of the decider. A set of brutal rallies then followed, which left both players doubled over in exhaustion on several occasions.

Crouin moved to match ball at 10-9 up and again at 11-10 up - but on both occasions, Pajares pulled off sublime winners to keep himself in the match. The Spaniard, who saw a match ball from his own racket repelled by Crouin, finally claimed victory when a straight backhand drive passed beyond the reach of the defending champion.

After the match, Pajares said: "It was third time lucky. This is my third time here at the Squash On Fire semi-finals, I finally made it to the final with some of the best squash of my career.

"I've been in these moments so many times in my career, just playing to the back the whole time and losing 11-6 in the fifth or something, so I wanted to attack today, be brave and sharp and I just went for it. I train all of my life for these moments, I have played these kind of [attacking] shots so many times in training, so why not in the match.

"I think I played three or four winners in the fifth game, and it made the difference today."

Pajares will play Youssef Soliman in the final after the No.2 seed saw off the challenge of Youssef Ibrahim in an entertaining all-Egyptian affair.

As was the case when the pair contested a five-game thriller at the Tournament of Champions last month, the match was well fought throughout, but it was Soliman's consistent lines and clever use of height on the front wall that proved key, with the 27-year-old prevailing by an 11-5, 11-7, 9-11, 11-9 scoreline.

In the women's draw, 16-year-old Amina Orfi produced a superb display to upset home favourite Sabrina Sobhy in three games.

Right from the off, the Egyptian played the match on her own terms, with her straight hitting down the backhand wall causing Sobhy particular issues. The Egyptian raced into a 6-0 lead and never let the American back in, taking a ten-minute opening game by an 11-6 scoreline.

The pair traded points to 5-5 in the second, but a Sobhy error into the tin at 5-6 down proved costly. Another drop shot into the tin from the world No.15 gave Orfi four game balls, and at the second time of asking, the teenager doubled her advantage in the match.

Sobhy came out firing in the third, progressing into a 5-3 lead, but Orfi remained composed, sticking to her tight lines to win five points on the bounce.

The 2023 runner-up moved to 10-8 up, but Sobhy refused to give up without a fight, finding two winners to force a tie-break. Despite the No.2 seed saving a third match ball at 11-10 down, Orfi eventually prevailed, winning an incredible final rally with a backhand volley drop.

After progressing to the final, Orfi said: "I'm so happy because she is such a good player, and last time I won 3/2, so I knew it was going to be tough. The first game was very crucial. In my last two matches, the start in my first game wasn't the best, so today I just focused on that.

"I tried not to open up the court too much because she volleys a lot and she has great skills, so I tried to close the court and make it a bit bigger for her.

"[In the third] I lost my focus a bit and it was important to win it, because if I lost it I knew she would make a comeback."

Meanwhile, defending champion Tinne Gilis continued her impressive run in Washington DC with a confident and composed display against No.4 seed Tomato Ho.

Although pushed into a second-game tie-break by the Hong Kong player, which Gilis eventually edged 13-11, the Belgian always looked in control, playing aggressively into the front two corners whenever given the opportunity and coming away with a straight games win after just 37 minutes of action.