It took a lot of skill – and even more sheer force of will – but Max Lee Ho-yin got past Fares Dessouky and he’s into the semi-finals of the Cathay Pacific Sun Hung Kai Financial Hong Kong Squash Open.
Take a second to let that sink in.
Never before has a Hong Kong player gone this far and Lee had in 12 previous attempts never even made it out of the first round of his hometown event.
Ten minutes after he’d beaten the rising Egyptian star 11-6, 8-11, 11-9, 11-8 at the Hong Kong Park Sports Centre, the 28-year-old Lee’s eyes were sparkling and he was still shaking his head as if to make sense of it all.
“I could feel the crowd,” said Lee, who is ranked 18th in the world. “The atmosphere was great. Oh my god, it was amazing. He changed the rhythm so well and it frustrated me. It was a bit of luck to win the third. In the fourth it was 50-50 but I am through and in the semis things look very open – all the top seeds are out.
“Everyone wants to win this title, it is very special. Now I am looking forward to tomorrow.”
For proof of how much this meant to Lee, look no further than the third game. The 21-year-old Dessouky, the world number 15, had found his feet, taking the second to even things up, but Lee had raced to a 6-1 lead.
The tension rose as Dessouky clawed his way back and it reached boiling point when he levelled the scores at 9-9 after a collision. Then the ball broke. Then Dessouky lost a stroke for dangerous play, after a huge shoulder charge, and it was 10-9 to Lee.
And then the Egyptian received a warning for dissent. But Lee kept his cool throughout all the drama, took the game 11-9, and held his nerve through the fourth game to take the victory.
“He took me out properly, but I knew it was important to keep my focus, to know when to switch on and off,” said Lee. “The third was just crucial.”
Next up for Lee is a player he says he admires “totally” – two-time Hong Kong Open winner and former world number one Ramy Ashour of Egypt, who beat Germany’s Simon Rosner 12-10, 7-11, 11-4, 11-9.
That’s some reward indeed, but Lee says he’s up for the challenge.
“Everybody knows Ramy is very good,” said Lee. “He’s one of my favourites and it will be a very nice to play him. I’ll have a good rest, good food for dinner and I have lots of good friends supporting me. I am just very happy today.”
Egypt’s world number eight Karim Abdel Gawad was the last seed left standing after all the marquee names tumbled out of the event last night. And so he remains into the weekend.
Gawad faced giant-killer Cameron Pilley of Australia – the man who dethroned two-time champion Mohamed El Shorbagy in the round of 16 – and emerged victorious 11-3, 7-11, 11-6, 11-7.
The 25-year-old said it had been impossible not to notice how the draw had opened up, but he was taking nothing for granted considering the strength of this year’s event.
“It’s a little weird with everyone out,” said Gawad.
“Even if people are thinking about the seeds who are out, there will always be tough players left in this tournament.
“Even if they are not seeded they are very good and we still have Ramy Ashour, an ex-world champion. In this event, they are just very tough players.”
Gawad will now meet Australian Ryan Cuskelly in the semis after the 29-year-old dispensed with England’s former world number one James Willstrop, 11-9, 11-8, 9-11, 11-7.
On the women’s side of things, with all the attention swirling around 20-year-old world number one Nour El Sherbini – into the semi against American Amanda Sobhy in her first visit here – it’s been easy to miss the presence of fellow Egyptian Nouran Gohar.
Not any more.
The 19-year-old, fresh from winning the world junior title in Poland, showed incredible resilience to see off former world number one Laura Massaro of England in a marathon – 11-8,
11-9, 8-11, 8-11, 14-12 – effort.
“I’m learning every time I play in these senior event,” she said afterwards.
She’ll want to put everything she’s learned into practice today as she will meet 10-time champion Nicol David, the Malaysian downing Camille Serme of France 11-8, 13-11, 7-11, 11-2 – and then treating herself to a slice of cake to mark her 33rd birthday.
“I am feeling better and better as the tournament goes on,” said David. “This place means a lot to me, to play in Asia again and at a place I love. It always brings out the best in me.”