The Egyptian Croquet Federation knows how to put on a good show. Most players arrived on Thursday 4 or Friday 5 October and were invited to the doubles final of a major Shooting Club tournament on the evening of 5 October. The Nasr brothers defeated Khaled Younis and his partner (with Ahmed finishing the match with a trademark hoop 11 from the north boundary above hoop 10) which was followed by a glitzy presentation for all the events in the tournament and dinner for all the players and Over-50 visitors.
The three ECF courts (on the eastern side of the Gizera Sporting Club complex) were in the best condition I have seen since my first visit in 2000 and two of the three Gizera Croquet Club courts on the western side of the GSC were as good. The players were invited to a cocktail party on the second Friday evening and the final presentation ceremony, complete with music, was a gloriously extrovert affair which outdid even the Shooting Club finale. The guest of honour was the President of the GSC who had generously provided lunches for the players throughout the week.
48 players took part with a further 15 on the waiting list. The first three days were sufficient to complete the block stage (eight blocks of six playing single-banked best-of-3 13 point games without time limits) and four play-off games. Play started at 0900 and continued to past midnight in a few cases in the Block Stage. Playing conditions during the day were definitely hot but not unbearably so and, from 1600 onwards, idyllic. Playing under excellent lights, with the moon in the sky, in 25 degrees with no wind and the cry of the muezzins in the background makes for an unforgettable croquet experience. Everyone should try it at least once and Cairo remains one of the cities that should be on every bucket list.
The top four from each block progressed to the Knock-Out Stage, including all four finalists from 2010 (Hisham Abousbaa and Stephen Mulliner) and 2014 (Salah Hassan and Hazem Mahmoud). However, Salah fell to Yasser Fathy in the round of 32 and Hisham then lost to Yasser in the round of 16. Hazem is famous for his off-centre aiming style and hard hitting and sliced his way through his first three opponents without dropping many points, let alone a game. Sherif Abdelwahab was a strongly-fancied contender for the title with a display of great accuracy and explosive clearances but he, too, found Yasser Fathy a very tough opponent and lost 7-6, 7-6 in the quarter-finals. This pitted Yasser against Hazem and, by now, it was not a total surprise that Yasser came through to the final with a 7-2, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 victory.
On the other side of the draw, Stephen Mulliner, the top seed, had only dropped one game on his route to the quarter-finals. Here he met Wael Shahine who looked a very useful player but was not really expected to give Stephen too much trouble. This proved to be quite wrong and, after two hour's excellent play by both players, Stephen seemed destined to go out 6-7, 5-7. However, Wael failed a 3-yard 12 and Stephen took the score to 6-6 and then, after his opponent decided to jaws 13 from 3 yards instead of simply running it, pulled off a superb jump from the boundary to square the match. Game 3 was close but Stephen emerged a 7-5 winner to face Hanan Rashad in the semi-final.
Hanan was one of only four women in the event to progress this far. Shen started playing over 30 years ago as a girl and was third in the first ever GC World Championship in 1996 behind Khaled Younis and Hisham Abousbaa. Together with Nahed Hassan, the 2005 Women's GC World Champion, Hanan was one of the top two women players in Egypt for many years. She retired from the game while her family was growing up but has now returned and is playing as well as ever. Hanan has a wonderfully brisk and no-nonsense pre-shot routine which many should think about emulating. She walks up to the ball with her hands at the top of the mallet shaft, places the head behind the ball, slips her hands down to the bottom of the grip and then, with no casting or further ado, takes the mallet back and administers the ball a very firm wallop, usually sending it straight at its target.
Stephen started the semi-final by over-hitting to hoop 1 and eventually lost it. The hoops were then won in strict alternation, including 13 where Hanan placed her approach with precision 3 yards north of the hoop and Stephen, having set up for the rush, hit it into hoop 12 instead! Game 1 to Hanan 7-6. Game 2 was largely similar although Hanan led 5-3 and 6-4 before being hauled back to 6-6. This time, she failed her attempt at 13 and Stephen had a shot from the boundary that went into the hoop and out again. 7-6 and 2-0 to Hanan. Stephen started game 3 with a disastrous accidental peel of Hanan's Y through 1 which resulted in leads of 3-0 and then 5-1. He then began a trademark recovery and reached 5-5 with Hanan showing the first signs of nerves and appeared to have regained control of 11 with a superb controlled clearance on Y in front of 11 from the W boundary. However, Hanan went for a 40 degree jaws with R from 3 yards and actually ran the hoop by an inch! Stephen took 12, again setting up for a rush which sent K to 5 yards NE of 13. The attempted jaws fell 6 inches short of target and Hanan made no mistake with Y from 5 yards to take the game and the match 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. She was a very worthy winner indeed.
The consensus for the final was that, if Hanan was to win, she needed to do so in straight games. She made an excellent start, carrying on from her semi-final with confident hooping and clearing, while Yasser missed several shorter clearances. Hanan took game 1 7-5 but lost her impetus in game 2 while Yasser settled down and began to clear with consistency. He took game 2 by 7-3 and things did not look too good for Hanan. Game 3 started off well for Hanan and she built a 6-3 lead which looked like giving her a 2-1 lead. However, Yasser won 10 and, after clearing Hanan's first ball to 11 with a cut, decided there was no point in clearing Hanan's second ball and took on 11 from 7 yards north of 10. He played a beautifully smooth stroke which sent his Y through 11 and down to 4 yards NW of 12. He soon converted this to 6-6 and, after two uncharacteristically weak approaches by Hanan to 13, took the game after a tactical battle where he always had the upper hand and led the match 2-1.
The crowd now clearly felt that Hanan had lost her chance and would not recover from the disappointment of losing a 6-3 lead. But the lady was not for collapsing and, once again, built a 6-3 lead. Once again, Yasser took 10 and 11, but this time 11 was with a neat in-off. However, as is usual, the ball did not go very far and Hanan was able to get the first ball to 12. After a couple of rotations, Hanan was faced with a 2-yard 45-degree hoop for the game. She played a smooth and gentle hoop stroke that scored the hoop by a foot and squared the match at 2-2.
Could Hanan continue to perform in game 5? After a tactical battle at hoop 1, she took the hoop and, after Yasser missed a 9-yard clearance, ran 2 from 5 yards for a 2-0 lead. This became 3-1, 4-2 and 5-3 and, after a fascinating eight-rotations duel in front of 9, Hanan elected to take a short angled hoop for a 6-3 lead knowing that she was unlikely to run it by much (one foot, in fact) and was likely to lose 10. This duly occurred but the battle for 11 was brief and spectacular. Hanan played K to 2 yards north of 11, Yasser cut-cleared it with Y which sent K to 10 yards N of 11. Hanan then played B to 5 yards north of 11 and Yasser sent R to 2 foot NW of 11. Hanan now cleared R with K - and ran 11 in-off to take the game, the match and the title.
She almost fell over in her reaction to her magnificent achievement and Yasser, not only a superb player but also a perfect gentleman, offered her very warm congratulations as the large crowd of spectators erupted with applause. It was a great match to watch, made all the more fascinating by the psychological drama involved. The strength of mind displayed by Hanan to put the disappointment of game 3 behind her and come back from 2-1 down was very impressive.
The match involved a very tactical approach at many of the corner hoops and the stroke-by-stroke CroquetScores commentary offers food for thought for those interested.
The Over-50 GCWC is a great event whose rightful place in the WCF's palette of events has become more obvious as the youngsters grow more dominant in top-level GC. Given the quality of play in the 2017 U21 GCWC in Melbourne and the prominence of some of those players in the main GCWC, it would not be a surprise if Reg Bamford were to be the only and last 50-year-old to win the GCWC. Over-50 players can still play to a superb level but are simply unlikely to have the same hand-eye coordination of a 20-year-old. It is Association Croquet that has no need of an Over-50 World Championship event - as demonstrated by a recent 60+ champion!
Many congratulation to Amir Ramsis, Yousry Ghamry and Mohamed Hassan for putting on another great championship.