Squash Player magazine's Richard Eaton reviews Miguel Angel Rodriguez’s improbable British Open triumph and predicts it could inspire other major South American success
Describing Miguel Angel Rodriguez as the most surprising winner in nine decades of the world’s oldest tournament does not remotely do justice to a tectonic-shifting, out-of-nowhere triumph which might open up opportunities for some major pioneering of the game.
No-one would have predicted it. Only when weirdly disbelieving noises from some of the spectators accompanied the sight of Mohamed ElShorbagy, the formidably physical World No.1, close to collapse in the British Open final did it feel like something big was rocking the foundations.
As the two men lengthily and tearfully embraced, past records and future horizons simultaneously changed, emotions and logic found rare agreement, and upheavals in the squash landscape began to take shape.
Rodriguez had become the only unseeded player (since seeding began) to win the sport’s most famous title, an achievement made more spectacular by the ailments which plunged him down the ranking, turned last season into the worst of his career and had him, aged 32, widely written off.
This marvellously resilient, most improbable champion of all comes from Bogota, the Colombian capital whose name means ‘Lady of the Andes’ and which, crucially, is one of the alpha cities in South America. Although its elevation is nearly twice the height of Ben Nevis (“so I have big lungs,” he says), it could rise many times higher in the significance it might gain for squash. The British Open title has arrived in a seventh continent, the only one not to have seen it before. And no-one saw it coming.
Frisson travelled with digital speed. Rodriguez’s triumph was celebrated on the front page of almost every Colombian newspaper and earned congratulations from Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, increasing the possibility of the new champion becoming a hero throughout Latin America. In a sport still dominated by Middle Easterners and Europeans, this breakthrough might become a liberation. A global circle is complete. An Olympic bid has been enhanced.
The success was all the more phenomenal for being achieved despite a lack of high-level sparring partners or top-level coaches. His success thus bears comparison with some of the most improbable upsets in individual sporting history.
Rodriguez with the 2018 Allam British Open title
There are no real squash comparisons, though. The sport’s previous biggest upsets are headed by Ross Norman’s ending of Jahangir Khan’s five-and-a-half year unbeaten run in 1986. However, that was in a World Championship final, not the British Open.
The British Open’s previous biggest upset was David Evans’ capture of the title at Birmingham in 2000. The imposingly tall Welshman had been around the world’s top 10 for a while, however, whereas Rodriguez re-appeared from a lengthy twilight to achieve his triumph.
The Colombian also did it with three remarkable victories, not one. He overcame former world and British Open champion Ramy Ashour in four games in the first round and World No.2 Ali Farag by the same score in the quarter-finals, before his extraordinary 11-7, 6-11, 8-11, 11-2, 11-9 victory in the final against ElShorbagy. That sequence was unique.
“I think everything was mental – I dreamed it. I had emotions during the week, but I am just speechless,” Rodriguez said.
“It is so difficult for a Latin player to achieve this type of title,” he later reminded us, his mind hurtling back to his introduction to the game at the age of two by his father, Ángel, a professional squash player himself, and to his days at Club El Nogal – the Walnut.
“I don’t have European leagues, I’m not Egyptian and I don’t have players of the level of Egyptians to play against. They play each other every day. This was something huge I accomplished.”
This was Rodriguez’s most salient point. Might it be possible to take advantage of a huge door suddenly being prised ajar? Might an entire continent pass through?
According to Eduardo Passos, a South American marketing and communications specialist, it might. “There's no doubt that the repercussions are huge in Colombia,” he says. “He will be significantly honoured, there will be a massive media response and a recognition from the government.
Rodriguez launches into a trademark dive
“It is more difficult to predict the immediate impact of this title regionally. But I believe future squash events will now become more valued in South America.
“Even from a player we all know has a very high level and is respected worldwide, the result is an amazing surprise. He has combined maturity, quality and courage to win. It should be very important for development in our region.”
Rodriguez himself identified other qualities which made it possible – among them a carefully disciplined attitude, a tactical flexibility and, most especially, his excellent condition.
“The mental side is critical,” he said. “Just 70 per cent of all the game is mental. All the players know how to hit the ball, volley and drop, everything. But if you come on court negative and say ‘OK, I am playing the World No.1’ – then you are gone. You have to change that statement, that thought. Say ‘it’s any player, one more player’.”
Rodriguez suggested he is a person who likes to change patterns, but he is flexible even about that. “I know you usually have to change your strategy with different players,” he said before the final with ElShorbagy. “But I am going to try to stick with my game and put on the pressure.
“If he wants to play fast, I will play fast or maybe I will slow down the pace. I will see during the rallies, but the key is to be mentally very positive, very relaxed.” He was and over 102 exhausting minutes it still worked.
Throughout the tournament he showed a better balance than before between his front and back-court games. “I used to play running about, hitting and defensive,” he said. “My structure and movement are better now. I am more disciplined.”
And then there was his complete physical recovery from a very low level. He had a recurring ankle injury at the beginning of last year and then suffered an infection after the Pan American Games which wiped him out for a few months, after which he was struggling mentally.
“I fell like a coconut, ha! ha!” he laughed. “I thought many people were saying that’s the end of me, of my career. I didn’t agree!
“I think the most important thing was that I was physically 101 per cent, no pain. I was ready every day. I was so confident.”
Might he achieve another big success? A bigger question might be whether another, younger player might emulate him, whether his piece of history could inspire other South Americans and enable him to pass the baton on. That might be a greater achievement.
There is one obvious candidate – Diego Elias, the gifted Peruvian, who was in the top 10 earlier this year and is still only 22.
There is also Juan Vargas, a 24-year-old Colombian living in New York, who is in the world’s top 100, and Diego Gobbi, a 23-year-old Brazilian from Sao Paulo ranked 162, as well as Catalina Pelaez, a 26-year-old Colombian from Bogota in the women’s top 70.
For now, though, the attention should remain on Rodriguez. “I think I am healthy in terms of habits, food, the mental side and the physical part, and I know I am able to play another two, three or four years,” he said. “You never know, but I can maybe win more titles. I am very disciplined and I have talent.”
Once upon a time that might have sounded like quite a boast, but not anymore.