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Max Lee’s fairy-tale run at Hong Kong Squash Open ends

There were upsets, but not the one the crowd craved as local hope Max Lee Ho-yin was bundled out of the Cathay Pacific Sun Hung Kai Financial Hong Kong Squash Open on Saturday.

Former world number one Ramy Ashour of Egypt proved the party pooper, ending Lee’s history-making run at the semi-final stage with an 11-8, 11-9, 11-6 victory.

The truth was Lee never looked likely as Ashour, two times a winner of the event and among the best touch players seen in recent times, gave the 28-year-old local lad a working over.

Max Lee riding tide of home support as he takes aim at place in Hong Kong Squash Open final

But there were no regrets, Lee said, and those gathered at the Hong Kong Park Sports Centre gave him a fitting ovation after he had helped bring the tournament to life over the past few days. Never before had a Hong Kong player made the quarters, let alone the semi-finals, and in 12 previous attempts Lee had never been past the first round.

“It’s a tough tournament and Ramy was very impressive,” said Lee. “I tried my best, tried to get in front of him, but he was too good. But it was a great tournament for me. I’m very happy and I’m happy to have helped squash in Hong Kong get some attention.”

Taking it to the max: Lee Ho-yin is first local man to reach semi-final of Hong Kong Squash Open

There was also disappointment mixed, it could be sensed, with a little bit of guilt about how quickly allegiances change in sport as Nicol David’s legions of fans saw the Malaysian’s star’s incredible run of 10-straight titles– and a 52-match unbeaten streak – brought to an end by the 18-year-old Egyptian phenomenon Nouran Gohar.

Hong Kong has quickly taken Gohar to heart – like a queen in waiting, if you like – and it was impossible not to feel like we have been watching the next big star of the women’s game announcing herself loudly on the senior ranks over the past week.

Slice of history: Max Lee is first local man to reach quarter-finals of Hong Kong Squash Open

The 33-year-old David was matter-of-fact about the loss, impressed by the young talent she had faced, and left vowing Hong Kong had not seen the last of her either.

“The fire still burns, don’t worry,” said David. “I just didn’t find my range. Nouran came in with nothing to lose and made no mistakes. She was on fire. It was just not my day today. Disappointing but I will be back, you can be sure of that.”

Gohar was understandably thrilled by the victory, which sees her face America’s Amanda Sobhy in her first World Series final.

“I just can’t believe it,” said Gohar. “To beat Nicol is amazing. I was just trying to enjoy it. I was just trying to be patient, to wait for the chance to attack and thankful it worked. I grew up idolising Nicol, she is a role model for us all.

Sobhy – who upset Egyptian world number one Nour El Sherbini in three sets in the other semi-final – was thrilled, yes, but also quietly anxious after her victory.

She had good reason to be.

“I need to find a bed for the night,” said the 23-year-old world number eight. “I was booked to fly out tonight because I didn’t think I’d make it past the quarter-finals so now I have to change my flight – and hopefully I can find a place to sleep.”

The 28-year-old Ashour said making the final here showed there was light at the end of a tunnel darkened in recent times by a spate of injuries that have threatened his career.

“I’m glad with my performance and I am glad that my body is holding up,” he said. “Everything is in place and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”

He’ll meet the last seed standing on the men’s side of matters, Egyptian world number eight Karim Abdel Gawad, who was made to work hard against tenacious Australian world number 16 Ryan Cuskelly, before winning 11-7, 11-6, 6-11, 12-10.

“It’s my first World Series final and it is a new feeling for me,” said Gawad. “The important thing is not to get too excited and just bring my best game with me tomorrow.”