Slice of history: Max Lee is first local man to reach quarter-finals of Hong Kong Squash Open
Crowd cheers on the 28-year-old who out-fought Egypt’s Ali Farag to a place in the last eight, while defending champion Mohamed El Shorbagy is knocked out by last year’s finalist Cameron Pilley
Max Lee grabbed a slice of history and said he was hungry for more of the same at the Cathay Pacific Sun Hung Kai Financial Hong Kong Squash Open on Thursday, as he became the first local man to make the quarter-finals of the event.
The 28-year-old – in his 13th appearance at a Hong Kong Squash Centre that quickly descended into delirium with the result – out-thought and out-fought Egypt’s world number nine Ali Farag of Egypt to win 11-8, 7-11, 13-11, 11-9.
Lee roared, the crowd replied and then the world number 18 put his head in his hands as though he couldn’t quite believe what had just happened.
“I didn’t want to get over-excited,” said Lee. “So I kept focusing on every single moment. Today, I tried to relax because I have always felt too intense in front of my crowd.
“At the end, they were so loud, but I kept calm. It was difficult, but I just wanted to win so much.”
Lee had come into the week, saying he had brushed off a disappointing last season with two months of “getting my head right”.
He wasn’t revealing what exactly that entailed – but whatever he did has worked. Lee’s court coverage was astonishing as he ran down the angles and kept his opponent under constant pressure.
“After all these years, I am finally in the quarters,” said Lee. “Now I need to eat, drink and stay healthy.”
A quarter-final with Fares Dessouky awaits after the Egyptian upset world champion Gregory Gaultier in five sets and then who knows after a day of high drama that opened the men’s draw right up.
Cameron Pilley had earlier shown a sweet tooth for revenge in knocking out defending champion Mohamed El Shorbagy.
Having been beaten by Shorbagy in the final of last year’s edition here, Pilley had sensationally bumped the Egyptian out of the World Series Finals in Dubai back in May.
Appetite unsated, though, he then served up a repeat performance on Thursday after a marathon, 90-minute slugfest that ended 11-9, 8-11, 9-11, 14-12, 11-9 to the good of the Aussie.
“I’ve got a decent record against him,’ said the world number 14.
“I just had to make sure I was sharp from the first point. I didn’t want him just coming on and blowing me off the court in the first five minutes.
“I had to stick in there and make it known that I was in for the long haul, and just not let up.
“It was a victory that drew on all the 33-year-old’s wiles as he kept the pressure on Shorbagy from the first ball drop, through a succession of lingering rallies and in and out of a few niggly mind games over shirt changes, and sweat puddles on the court – both real and imagined.
The crowd loved every second of it.
“If you have a good run in a place, then you return to try to replicate the things you’ve done before – eating the same things, trying to get on the exact same schedule and the same vibe – and I’ve managed to do that pretty well,” said Pilley.
Pilley now moves on to a quarter-final match-up against Karim Abdel Gawad of Egypt as he looks to go one better than his surprise appearance in last year’s final.
Shorbagy’s hopes of a third straight win were scuppered and he was quickly off the court, and out of the building.
It was a happier day for the women’s world number one – if not for the rest of the Hong Kong contingent.
Egypt’s 20-year-old starlet Nour El Sherbini found the going tough against Annie Au Wing-chi, before winning 18-16, 11-5, 6-11, 11-7.
The 27-year-old Au had fallen behind 0-6 in the first set before working her way into the contest and Sherbini was full of praise for the world number 10 as well as being pleased with how her first visit to Hong Kong was working out so far.
“I’m improving every match,” she said. “Annie worked me really hard. You have to play 100 per cent against her or she’ll kill it.”
Au thought much the same.
“Last year I played her and she had no problems with me. This year she did. So that is my positive,” said Au.
The locals entered the day on a high, having two men in the round of 16 for the first time – in Lee and Yip Tsz-fung – plus Au and Ho Tze-lok there on the women’s side of the draw.
Yip fell 11,5, 11-9, 11-4 to Australia’s Ryan Cuskelly and Ho’s impressive debut was ended 11-5, 11-5, 11-4 by Camille Serme of France.
While Shorbagy’s loss has thrown the men’s competition wide open, 10-time champion Nicol David is again casting her shadow over the women’s draw.
But she was made to work overtime on Thursday against the spirited New Zealander Joelle King before prevailing 11-7, 7-11, 9-11, 11-8, 11-5.
It was the Malaysian champ’s 52nd straight victory in Hong Kong.