Article and photos by Jay D. Prince
To call the U.S. Junior Open an “international” event is perhaps one of the biggest understatements of the junior squash world. Since we began covering the championship in 1997, when it was still called the Junior Olympics, the international flavor has not only continued to thrive, but its global appeal has exploded.
In the late 1990s, most of the foreign competitors hailed from the Americas— predominantly Canadians, but annual regulars from south of the border as well, especially from Mexico and Colombia. There were also a sprinkling of Aussies, Kiwis and Brits, and even a few Pakistanis. But just like the rest of the sport, the evolution of the U.S. Junior Open includes more Egyptian players than ever. While a few are prep school students in the Northeast, the rest made the 5,400 mile journey to Boston from Cairo and Alexandria. To be precise, 34 of the 732 competitors were Egyptian.
The U.S. Junior Open Championships, featuring 732 entrants from 21 countries, has already run away with the title of “largest” junior event in the world, and while overall “quality” still lags behind the British Junior Open, the fact that 34 Egyptians competed in Boston speaks to the growing prestige of the American event. Five of those 34 took home winner’s hardware—three in the boys and two in the girls. In the British, where there are no under-11 divisions, none of the 40 Egyptian entrants played in the States, but 13 of them played in the eight British finals—and won all but one of them.
It’s difficult to imagine the U.S. Junior Championships not continuing to grow in size and depth, especially when the American girls pushed the Egyptian World Junior Champions to the brink in last summer’s team final to finish second. Despite the team’s three leaders, Amanda Sobhy, Olivia Blatchford and Haley Mendez, moving on in their careers, the balance of the American contingent from last summer is still progressing. Neither Sabrina Sobhy nor Olivia Fiechter has aged into the under-19 yet, and Maria Elena Ubina won the U19 while still eligible for the U17.
And that’s just looking at US girls. On the boys side, the U11 and U13 were both captured by Americans, while Max Martin reached the finals of the U15 and Dylan Murray reached the semis in the U19— still just 16-years-old.
To make all of this growth happen requires determination and perseverance on the part of U.S. SQUASH, a fact easily taken for granted. The fact is, the National Governing Body for the sport in the US has accepted the challenge of building American squash, not only with respect to playing ability on the court, but also management capability behind the scenes. In Boston, six of the eight full-time Association staff were on site, plus an additional 50 workers (paid and unpaid) and close to 20 referees—numbers that are vital to pull off a three-venue event (Harvard with 14 courts, The Brooks School with 10, and The Belmont School with eight), hosting over 1650 matches in just four days. In 1997, there were only four employees at the USSRA.
The most impressive part of all of this was simply the quality of play on court. While Harvard has certainly been graced with outstanding players for decades, the players in the junior event did nothing to tarnish the institution’s reputation. The maturity of tactics and shot execution, from the U11 through the U19 was a testament to the growth of the game here in the States and internationally. While there are still examples of juniors trying to out-muscle each other by hammering the ball to the back corners, that approach is rapidly becoming a tool rather than a weapon. Perhaps part of that is due to the generation of players now having grown up with nothing but the international game, rather than the hardball version of the past. In December, the juniors in every division exhibited full understanding of the height, width and length of the court, as well as variations of pace that used to be the exclusive domain of the under-19—or just the foreign players.
Maria Elena Ubina was a perfect example. Ubina has made a habit of playing U.S. Junior Open finals, winning the U15 in 2008, the U17 in 2009, losing to Olivia Fiechter in the U17 final in 2010, and now winning her first U19 championship in 2011. But she doesn’t succeed by simply overpowering her opponents. Instead, Ubina excels by controlling the middle of the court with medium pace and placement of the ball. Rather than being forced to keep up with pace, she extends the court and her opponents to open up the court, making relatively easy shots to win. It was a clinical display by Ubina from start to finish, taking out a pair of Canadians, including Michelle Gemmell in a four-game quarterfinal, and three Mexicans—topped off by a three-game thumping of the second seeded Diana Garcia.
In the Girls U17, top-seeded and defending champion Olivia Fiechter makes the game look so easy that it is sometimes difficult to tell if she’s winning or losing; she just has a casual, yet comfortable, approach to the game. While she opened the Championships with a dominant performance, dropping just eight points in her first two matches, she ultimately ran into Malaysia’s Sue Ann Yong in the semis. Yong took the three-game match, but by the narrowest of margins—11-9, 12-10, 12-10—meaning American hopes rested on the diminutive shoulders of Katie Tutrone, the No. 2 seed.
Tutrone owns the court when she’s on it, yanking her opponents forward and backward, until she has the opening she needs to win points with deft touch to the front. She needed all of that in her semifinal after dropping the first two games to Canada’s Alyssa Mehta. And it was almost enough in the final against Yong. Tutrone took the opener, stumbled in the second, and needed 15 points to win the third. But that was as close as she got, as Yong took control, winning the last two, 11-6 and 11-5.
One player who does use power as her tool and weapon is Reeham Sedky— and with fabulous results over the past five years. Sedky hasn’t lost a match at the U.S. Junior Open since first taking the U11 in 2007. Interestingly, Sedky’s power game has been something Sabrina Sobhy has struggled to solve. Four of Sedky’s five consecutive titles have included wins over Sobhy, all but one—the 2009 U13 semis—in the finals. 2011 was no different. Neither Sedky, seeded No. 2 (as she was last year), nor Sobhy, the top seed (also the same as last year), came close to dropping a game in their early rounds. In the final, Sedky kept up her dominating power game to jump out to a quick 2-0 lead before dropping the third 12-10. But that was as close as Sobhy would get and Sedky completed her sixth win in her last eight encounters with Sobhy.
On the boys side, it was the younger Americans who successfully displayed the development of their games. Ayush Menon, the No. 1 seed in the U11, needed all of his game’s maturity when he faced Egypt’s Omar El Torkey in the semis. It was the only match that marred the clean sheet Menon carried to the title, as he dropped the opening game 12-10 and the third 11-4. But that was all El Torkey could muster, and Menon capitalized on the momentum he gained from that experience by crushing Mexico’s Luis Enrique Moncada Gonzalez in the final.
Salim Khan, last year’s runner-up in the U13, made up for it in 2011. Blessed with good genetics—his dad and coach, Azam, played for a couple of US World Men’s teams in his playing days (not to mention Grandpa Yusuf and Aunts Latasha and Shabana)—and an impressive understanding of the game, Khan puts pressure on his opponents without the need for pace. Instead, he uses outstanding width and length to keep players on the defensive. And despite losing the second game of the final against Egypt’s Aly Abou El Einen (winner of the U11 in 2010), Khan never looked rattled against his talented shot-making opponent. In the fourth game, Khan took early control when El Einen was forced to take an injury break to cover a bleeding pinky. Unfazed, Khan continued to dominate the court to secure seven match balls, leading 10-4. Though El Einen’s poise brought him back to 8-10, the cover on his pinky came off while the finger was still bleeding—a disappointing end to a fabulous final, because the rules resulted in conceding the game and, therefore, the match.
The Egyptian and Latin American presence in Boston was evident throughout the event, but nowhere more obvious than in the Boys under-15, -17 and -19 and the Girls under-11 and -13; divisions in which the Egyptians took home winner’s hardware. But one who did not win was Mahmoud Abdel Maksoud in the BU17. Last year, Maksoud reached the Round of 16, and in 2011 the quarters where Peru’s Diego Elias stopped him in three roaring games. The point of the tournament came in the third game, when Elias forced Maksoud into four point-saving dives—to the front left, then the back right, again to the front left, back right—only to have Elias hammer a cross-court nick that rolled out to Maksoud as he prepared for a fifth dive in the same point. Great stuff!