NEW YORK (AP) Amanda Sobhy, a recent Harvard graduate who went 62-0 in her college squash career and currently sits No. 6 in the world on the pro tour, is the highest-ranked U.S.-born player ever to pick up a racquet.
American and squash star aren’t usually in the same sentence.
Sobhy’s Egyptian father and American mother met on a squash court, and Amanda dropped tennis to focus on the sport at age 12. Now the 23-year-old is playing in her native New York at Grand Central Station in the Tournament of Champions.
Article continues below ...
”This is one of the few tournaments where the crowd is super rowdy,” Sobhy said. ”I love it. In college squash, that’s how the crowd was. I thrive off of that.”
It’s mostly former Ivy Leaguers who played in college causing a commotion in the 500-seat risers at Vanderbilt Hall. Thousands of commuters streaming by pause briefly and silently to watch the players in the Plexiglas cube, largely unfamiliar with a sport that’s dominated by pros from Egypt, Britain and Malaysia.
The No. 1 players Mohamed El Shorbagy, who is mentored by his mother, and Nour El Sherbini of Egypt are back to defend their titles. The tournament runs through Thursday, with the top 32 male and female players vying for $300,000 in total prize money.
Sobhy finished runner-up last year, and may face No. 2 player Nouran Gohar of Egypt in the quarterfinals. Tournament director John Nimick says Sobhy is ”breaking new ground for American squash.”
Here are a few things to know about Sobhy, who majored in social anthropology and sang ”God Bless America” on July 4 during a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park:
Her father, Khaled, was an accomplished squash player on the Egyptian national team. He came to the U.S. in the 1980s and played in a New York tournament organized by her mother, Jodie Larson. International players didn’t wear goggles, but it was required for U.S. matches.
”He’d wear them, but put them on the top of his head,” Amanda said, laughing. ”My mom was yelling at him to make sure he was wearing them.”
A squash family was born, with older brother Omar taking it up first and playing at George Washington, followed by Amanda and younger sister Sabrina, a sophomore on the Harvard team. They often traveled to Egypt in the summer and honed their games.
Amanda switched to squash because her tennis serve was ”absolutely abysmal.”
”Squash was much more fast-paced and much more attacking,” she said. ”I enjoyed how many different elements went into playing squash – the thinking and the angles and the shot selection.”
Sobhy won the World Junior Squash Championship on her 17th birthday in 2010, becoming the first U.S. player to earn the title.
Power and agility are needed to win 3 of 5 games in the highly aerobic sport, where matches can last from 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. The small rubber ball is smacked in any combination off the four walls, as long as it hits the front wall before bouncing on the floor.
Ryan Cuskelly of Australia and Max Lee of Hong Kong had frequent collisions in an effort to block their opponent from the ball and challenged the referee for video replays during the match. Not so much in the women’s game, where quickness and finesse, including drop shots, are equally effective.
Sobhy had a ”massive target” on her back during her undefeated college run, when she was expected to win and competitors ”played their best squash against me, which was kind of annoying.”
She only lost two games in college, both to Trinity College player Kanzy Emad El Defrawy from Egypt. Trinity squash coach Paul Assaiante says Sobhy controls the middle of the court and forces her opponents to chase the ball.
”You can be the light bulb or you can be the moth,” he said.
After turning pro, losses to former No. 1 Nicol David of Malaysia inspired Sobhy to get fitter. She also enlisted a sports psychologist to help her stay relaxed during crucial points, ”like it was 1-love.”
This fall, Sobhy twice defeated David, whose amazing nine-year run at No. 1 ended in 2015. The 33-year-old David, a winner of 80 tour titles with 900,000 Facebook followers, says Sobhy plays ”a lefty game, so you have to be ready for different styles. The younger generation is more aggressive and so hungry.”
Sobhy played in 10 tournaments in her first full year on the Professional Squash Association tour, including five in the U.S. – Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and New York. She reached the semifinals of the Malaysian and Hong Kong Opens last year, and played in Paris and Buenos Aires. Tournaments are also held in Qatar and Dubai.
Squash, still aiming for Olympic status, is played by approximately 20 million people worldwide in about 185 countries and 1.5 million in the U.S.
Sobhy says women in the top 10 can make a living in the sport with the help of sponsorship deals and funding from national governing bodies. The tournament in New York offers the winners $25,000 each, one of three U.S. events providing equal prize money for men and women.
”I’d love to win this tournament,” said Sobhy, who grew up on Long Island and expects about 50 family and friends to attend. ”My next goal is to try to break into the Top 5. I’m kind of right on the cusp.”