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May 4, 2022

62-0 in college. Only lost two games in four years. How good is that? On the other hand, at what cost did she earn that record?

An interesting article about the best American player, the sport and the toll. From the NYT:

No American Has Ever Been No. 1 in Squash. Amanda Sobhy Can Change That. The first American-born player to crack the world’s Top 10 is taking on Egypt’s dominance of the game.

Amanda Sobhy took the court for her first match at the Windy City Open on a snowy Thursday evening in late February. The $500,000 tournament, one of the richest events in pro squash, was being held at the University Club of Chicago, around the corner from Grant Park; a portable glass-walled court had been set up on the ninth floor, in a room known as Cathedral Hall, a space that called to mind a medieval church. Despite the weather, 100 or so spectators had come out to watch. A few days later, the tennis legend Billie Jean King would attend the semifinals and finals.

Sobhy, the first American-born player to crack the world’s Top 10 in squash, arrived in Chicago ranked fourth. Her opponent on this night was a fellow lefthander, Canada’s Hollie Naughton. The 5-foot-8 Sobhy is an aggressive player — she pounds her forehands and backhands, volleys as often as she can and seldom hesitates to go for winners. She also has an almost preternatural ability to anticipate where the other player is likely to hit the ball. Her game can be smothering, and she dispatched Naughton 11-5, 11-6 and 11-2 in a mere 29 minutes. Along the way, she showed flashes of the humor and pugnacity that have made her one of squash’s more forceful personalities. “Were you watching?” she sarcastically asked the referee while disputing a call, a comment that elicited laughter in the bleachers. “I love performing, I love grinding it out, I love putting on a show,” she told the crowd after the match.

Sobhy, a Long Island native, has carried the hopes of American squash for more than a decade, ever since she won the world junior championship in 2010. By her own admission, it has been a heavy burden at times because of the peculiar history of squash in the United States. Starting around 1993, the year Sobhy was born, Americans gave up their version of the game, called hardball, and adopted the version played by most of the rest of the world, which was referred to as softball. The differences were partly self-explanatory — one ball was harder than the other — but softball also used a wider court. From an infrastructure standpoint, converting to softball was a huge and costly endeavor. But a bigger challenge was becoming competitive at it.

Sobhy had one critical advantage over other American kids when she took up squash: Her father, Khaled, had played professionally in his native Egypt and had a deep understanding of softball. He coached all three of his children, and two of them became pros: Amanda’s younger sister, Sabrina, is currently ranked 23rd. Khaled Sobhy has been called the Richard Williams of squash, and the comparison is not unwarranted: Like Williams, Khaled was a headstrong figure determined to produce champions and at no small sacrifice for all involved.

Amanda went undefeated over four seasons at Harvard, and a little more than a year after graduating, in 2015, she was ranked sixth in the world. But her career has not been without setbacks. In 2017, she tore an Achilles’ tendon, which sidelined her for months. More recently, she revealed that she had battled an eating disorder for much of the previous decade, which was at least partly connected to the pressure she felt as the standard-bearer for American squash. She says she has recovered, and in April last year, she entered the Top 5.

Sobhy, along with her sister, is part of a quartet of highly ranked American women. Olivia Fiechter is 11th, Olivia Clyne 17th. On the women’s side, at least, the United States has finally become a power in squash. (The American men are progressing, too, albeit not quite as quickly: The highest-ranked American man, Todd Harrity, is No. 36.) If the 28-year-old Sobhy can get to No. 1, it will be an epochal achievement for American squash. But the personal dimension is even stronger. “I want to do it for myself because I know how much I’ve overcome,” she says.

To reach the top, however, she will have to find a way past the three Egyptian women ranked ahead of her. Egyptians have dominated men’s and women’s squash in recent years, with a freewheeling style — lots of clever shots, abundant use of angles and deception — that has done much to change how the game is played (while also making it more entertaining). Sobhy has the same quick-strike attitude as the Egyptians; the question is whether she can execute it well enough on a sustained basis to eclipse them.

She had an opportunity to take a step in that direction at the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions in New York in early May. Now an even bigger one awaits: The world championships get underway on May 13 in Cairo. On the back of Egypt’s success, the city has become squash’s de facto capital and hosts several prestigious tournaments. But Sobhy has yet to win one of these and has made a final only once. She finds it hard to produce her best squash in Cairo, a problem that seems rooted, to some extent, in her complicated relationship with her father. “I am Khaled Sobhy’s daughter there,” she says. “I’m kind of a little branch entity of him, which I don’t really like.” Playing in Cairo also highlights her complex identity as an athlete: She’s an American superstar, but she’s also the daughter of an Egyptian, trying to break the Egyptian grip over her sport. She concedes that it can be disorienting. “I don’t know who I am when I am there,” she says.

In his 1926 book, “The Game of Squash Rackets,” Charles Arnold, a prominent coach and player at the time, observed with typical British understatement that “the ball is a very vexed question in squash.” Although the sport was invented in England nearly a century earlier, the British had not yet settled on a standard ball. Players in the United States, meanwhile, were using a different ball entirely; it was firmer and livelier than the ones the British were using. The upshot was that Americans ended up playing a game called hardball on a court that was 18.5-feet wide, while the British and others played what came to be known as softball, using a 21-foot-wide court.

Hardball and softball coexisted for decades. American players made occasional forays onto the softball tour, losing quite badly most of the time. By contrast, softballers seemed to have little difficulty picking up hardball. In the mid-1980s, Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan, the No. 1 ranked men’s softball player, entered 15 hardball tournaments and won 13 of them. By the early 1990s, there was a growing consensus in the United States that softball wasn’t just more physically demanding but also required more skill. This, coupled with the hope — still unrealized — that squash would become an Olympic sport, led to hardball’s demise.

In the years following the transition to softball, a couple of American players fared well: Latasha Khan got to No. 18 in the world in 2000 and Julian Illingworth to No. 24 in 2012. Most, though, struggled to master the intricacies of softball. What laid the groundwork for the coming-of-age that American squash is currently in the midst of was an influx of foreign players and coaches. In the mid-1990s, Trinity College in Connecticut began recruiting from places like England and India. Paul Assaiante, Trinity’s coach then and now, says there was resentment among people who believed that roster spots should be reserved for Americans. “We got beat up,” he recalls.

But the imports paid off: From 1999 to 2012, the Trinity men’s squash team won 13 consecutive intercollegiate championships and 252 straight matches, the longest undefeated streak in college sports history. To keep up with Trinity, other schools started bringing in players from overseas. Assaiante, who also served as the United States national coach for many years, says that what was good for Trinity was ultimately good for American squash: The foreign recruits forced Americans to improve their play. “We blew up the country club,” Assaiante says with a laugh.

Even so, squash was still seen as a useful sport for athletes with Ivy League aspirations, and well-to-do American parents were willing to spend whatever it took to turn their children into prospects. This created a lucrative market for foreign coaches, among them quite a few who had been top players. Pro squash is not especially remunerative — the winner’s purse at the Windy City Open was $35,720, which is considered a good payday — and retired stars often found that they were able to earn more money teaching squash to wealthy Americans than they had made as players.

Several former No. 1s coach in the United States. So does Rodney Martin, an Australian player who reached No. 2 in the early 1990s and is based in Connecticut. Martin says the United States faced a sharp learning curve when it came to softball in part because there wasn’t “the expertise in coaching.” These days, some of the best minds in the game are working with young Americans.

They are being trained to take on the world, and one country in particular: Egypt. When the United States switched to softball, the dominant powers were England, Australia and Pakistan. Now, Egypt rules. Since 2006, six different Egyptian men have held the No. 1 ranking. In the last six years, an Egyptian woman has been No. 1 for all but four months. At the moment, seven of the Top 10 men are from Egypt; Egyptian women hold five spots in the Top 10. The rise of Egyptian squash is, in its own way, a story as unlikely as the United States’ ditching its version of a game in order to fall in line with everyone else.

Squash has a long history in Egypt, dating back to the British occupation, and the country turned out some excellent players over the years, Khaled Sobhy among them. But there was little to suggest that Egypt would become the juggernaut it is today. Its ascendance began when a player named Ahmed Barada reached the final of a major tournament in Cairo in 1996 and then rose to No. 2 in the world. A charismatic figure, Barada touched off a squash boom. It helped that President Hosni Mubarak was a player himself and eager to promote squash. Amr Shabana’s victory at the 2003 men’s world championship increased the game’s cachet. In a nation that had few international sports stars, the finest squash players became celebrities, which encouraged more participation. Karim Darwish, an Egyptian who got to No. 1 in 2009, says that he, Barada and Shabana became “idols who were looked up to” and that their success brought waves of players into the game. Darwish now runs a squash academy in Cairo with about 2,500 children enrolled between the ages of 4 and 12.

Another factor: For Egyptians, too, squash has proved to be a way into leading American universities. Ali Farag, who held the No. 1 ranking most of the last two years (he is now No. 2), attended Harvard. Youssef Ibrahim, a Princeton senior, is ranked 11th in the world. A barrel-chested lefty who calls to mind Rafael Nadal, Ibrahim reached the men’s final of the Windy City Open and came within two points of winning. Thanks in part to Egyptian students, high-level collegiate squash is almost an extension of the pro circuit.

Amanda Sobhy also helped make it that way. She had been ranked as high as 17th before she arrived at Harvard in 2011 and climbed to 10th by the time she left (she had played some pro events as a junior and continued to do so while in college). In contrast to most of her classmates, her career path was established before she even set foot on campus: She was raised for squash greatness, and turning pro would be the inevitable next step after Harvard.

The Arlen Specter US Squash Center, which opened last year, occupies a converted armory on the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia. Named for the late United States senator from Pennsylvania, who was a squash enthusiast, the $40 million facility has 20 courts. On a Wednesday afternoon in March, Sobhy was there playing a practice match against Olivia Fiechter, who in addition to being Sobhy’s closest American rival is her best friend on the pro tour.

A game within the game was going on when I arrived to watch. A loafer had been placed along each of the side walls, just behind the service box, and while Sobhy and Fiechter were playing, they were also trying to drive their shots so tight to the wall and with enough depth that the ball would hit a shoe. As usual with Sobhy and Fiechter, there were stakes: Every shot that struck a shoe was worth $1, and whoever was trailing at the end had to pay in cash or spring for coffee or a snack.

Sobhy, who moved to Philadelphia from Boston in 2020, ended up winning both the regular game and the shoe game. It was a small measure of revenge: Fiechter, a 26-year-old Princeton graduate, had unexpectedly beaten her in their last two tournament meetings, most recently in February in Cincinnati. Sobhy told me she was “salty” after that match but agreed to stick around to coach Fiechter for the rest of the weekend. The women usually room together on the road.

Following practice, they talked about their upcoming trip to Egypt; both were leaving in a few days for a tournament in Cairo. While Sobhy enjoys seeing her Egyptian relatives, the city’s traffic and heat grate on her, and she finds it hard to be a woman there. “I’m a very outspoken female, and I don’t like to be diminished in Egyptian culture,” she says. But she acknowledges that her feelings about Egypt are colored by what was, for many years, a sometimes difficult father-daughter dynamic.

Sobhy grew up in Sea Cliff, N.Y., on the North Shore of Long Island. In addition to her sister, who is three years younger (and the more naturally gifted player, at least according to Sobhy), she has an older brother, Omar, who played squash in college and works in real estate in Philadelphia. Her mother, Jodie Larson, is a school music teacher. Her parents divorced when Sobhy was in second grade. Her father, who came to the United States in the mid-1980s to teach squash, worked for several years as an accountant before taking a job as the pro at a local country club, which gave him more time to coach his own children.

When it came to squash, Khaled Sobhy had a lot of ambition for his children, and Amanda says he was very demanding. If his expectations weren’t met, Khaled made his unhappiness clear. “His deliverance was harsh,” as she puts it. They clashed a lot — “I would cry on court because I would be so upset” — but she stayed with it because she wanted to excel. “I love the sport enough that he didn’t push me over the edge,” she told me.

She says she knows that her father’s strict approach was “coming from a place of love” and that “if he didn’t push us as hard and wasn’t as involved, we wouldn’t be as successful.” When I spoke to Khaled Sobhy, who now splits his time between Egypt and the United States, he agreed that it wasn’t always easy to separate his roles as coach and father. Referring to Amanda, he said, “She would always say to me that once we were off the court, I had to stop being her coach and just be Dad.” He added, “I learned it the hard way.”

The Sobhy children didn’t train exclusively with their father. Like Richard Williams, Khaled Sobhy sometimes sought input from other coaches. Rodney Martin worked occasionally with the Sobhy sisters. He says Amanda was “phenomenal” at a young age, not only because of her skills but also because of her dedication. It was clear to Martin that she had the talent and the will to get to the top. She was “going to make a good fist of it,” he says.

Amanda captured numerous junior titles. She also won four pro tournaments when she was just 16. Some people told her that her game would stagnate if she went to college instead of turning pro, but she was eager to show that she could continue to improve while pursuing her education. “I’m very stubborn,” she says, “and I like proving people wrong.”

The expectations were enormous when Sobhy got to Harvard. “There was a target on my back,” she says. But she not only went 62-0 in college; she dropped just two games (a squash match is best-of-five games).

Outside squash, Sobhy found Harvard challenging. She knew she was admitted mainly because she was an accomplished athlete. “I got in for my squash,” she says flatly. She majored in social anthropology, with a minor in global health, but always felt inferior to her peers and dreaded being called on in class. Her bulimia started in college. The problem persisted after she turned pro. She was often lonely while traveling, and losses left her crestfallen, which led to more bingeing and purging. “I internalized a lot of pressure,” she says, “and I coped with food.”

Despite their close friendship, Fiechter was shocked to learn that Sobhy had been struggling with an eating disorder. “I had no idea,” Fiechter says. Part of it was that Sobhy was so seemingly in control. “The first time we roomed together, I noticed how professional she was — with how she dealt with sponsorships, and how she had her nutritional supplements here and her snacks there and all her match outfits laid out,” Fiechter recalls. “You could just see how regimented and disciplined she was, and to me, that was hugely inspiring.”

Sobhy eventually told her sister about her bulimia, and the moment turned out to be a mutual confession: Sabrina Sobhy had also struggled with an eating disorder. “I had a similar experience,” Sabrina says, “and we kind of shared both of our stories with each other.” A sports psychologist was able to help Amanda address the problem. Looking back, she is astonished that she was able to play at such a high level all those years. “I think I almost don’t give myself credit for how strong I was mentally,” she says.


US Squash, the national governing body, subsidizes around a dozen American players, each of whom receives $7,500 to $40,000 annually. The aim is to make squash a more viable career option for them. Between that support, her tournament winnings and her exhibition fees, Sobhy makes a reasonably good living by squash standards. She recently purchased a house in Philadelphia, and she no longer needs a second job. In Boston, she worked as the assistant coach of the M.I.T. men’s team. “This is the first time where I can be a full-time professional,” she told me.

With newfound financial stability, Sobhy is free to concentrate on toppling the Egyptians. In a sense, though, she has been chasing them most of her life. On annual summer visits to Cairo, Sobhy and her siblings would spend their days sparring with local kids at the Heliopolis Sporting Club, among Egypt’s most famous squash venues. Sobhy says that for her father, the Egyptians were always the benchmark for her progress. He expressed impatience if “they did well, and I wasn’t up to par with them.”

The Egyptians are renowned for their explosive play. Instead of the attritional British style, in which matches are won by running the opponent to exhaustion, the Egyptians look to end points quickly and with as much panache as circumstances allow. They were helped by an adjustment to the lower boundary on the front wall — it was reduced by two inches in 1990 for the men and in 2015 for the women — that spurred more risk-taking. The game still features plenty of lung-burning rallies, but there is much more action now in the front of the court — more drop shots and guileful flicks. John Nimick, a hardball pro in the 1980s, marvels at how the Egyptians have changed squash. “They have made it so kinetic, so angular, so fast, so creative,” he says.

Given Sobhy’s heritage and all the time that she spent in Cairo as a child, it is not surprising that she plays a similar style to the Egyptians, and as a pro, she has notched victories over all three women who are above her in the rankings: Nouran Gohar, Nour El Sherbini and Hania El Hammamy. But they are very difficult opponents. “I’ve played them and maybe the entire match they’ve given me one error,” Sobhy says. Consistency and judicious shot selection are paramount, and that’s where Sobhy sometimes runs into trouble. During her second match in Chicago, against the Welsh player Tesni Evans, ranked 14th, Sobhy won the first two games easily and held match points in the third. But she squandered them and ended up losing the third and fourth games before prevailing. (She was beaten in the next round, by world No. 5, Joelle King, of New Zealand.)

Sobhy is coached by Wael El Hindi, a former Top 10 player from Egypt who owns a racket club in Boynton Beach, Fla. She hired him in part because he “knows the mind of Egyptians.” El Hindi told me that he was working with Sobhy on developing a better sense of when to attack and when to pull back. The key for Sobhy, he says, is to be able to impose her game on opponents without taking excessive risks. What impresses him about Sobhy is her willingness to experiment. “She’s such a great student,” El Hindi says. “Even at her level, she’s open to learning things, to changing things.”

At the British Open in April, Sobhy showed signs of progress. In the quarterfinals, she defeated Fiechter 3-0 in 35 minutes. She was in total command from start to finish — no lapses, relentlessly aggressive without being reckless. The next day, she faced Gohar, the world No. 1. Sobhy had a winning record against the Egyptian but had lost their four most recent meetings. The victory over Fiechter left her feeling very confident, though. She might have drawn encouragement, too, from the fact that Paul Coll, a New Zealander, had just supplanted Ali Farag as the men’s top-ranked player — a crack in the Egyptian wall. “I thought I was ready,” she says.

Unfortunately for her, Gohar was in ruthless form. As hard as Sobhy hits the ball, Gohar seems to generate even more power, and the American quickly felt overwhelmed by her pace. “Instead of relaxing, I got very panicked, anxious,” she says. Gohar pounced on every loose shot, appeared to hit winners almost at will and took the match 3-0. Sobhy admitted to being “caught off guard” by how well her opponent played. “It had been a while since I had had such a poor loss on a grand stage,” she says.

But if the match showed that the gap between her and the best Egyptians is wider than she might wish, it also demonstrated the distance that Sobhy has traveled in other ways. She was crushed after the defeat and felt that old sense of shame and inadequacy — “my eating disorder voice,” as she puts it. She knew that spending the night alone in her hotel room was not a good idea. Instead, she went to visit some friends. By the following morning, Sobhy says, she was already strategizing about what she would do differently against Gohar the next time. In its own way, that felt like a victory.

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