Quick. Think of three things you associate with Egypt.

OK, what’d you come up with? Pyramids? The Sphinx? Maybe King Tut or the Nile River?

Here’s one you probably missed: the sport of squash.

The squash players gathered at the Murr Center in Harvard University’s athletic complex in Boston were originally supposed to meet in Cairo. There are 79 players representing 19 nations in this year’s Women’s World Junior Squash Championship, an 11-day event featuring both the annual individual and biannual team championships. The World Squash Federation moved the event to the U.S. after the Egyptian revolution that began on Jan. 25.

Steve Cubbins runs SquashSite, the world’s leading squash website. Although unrest in Cairo affected squash events in Egypt throughout the spring, Cubbins says things are returning to normal and the city is still one of the sport’s strongest hubs.

“Two years ago I went to Cairo for a junior event and I was amazed that we had a tournament like this that ran six courts from 9 o’clock in the morning ‘til 10 o’clock at night,” Cubbins said. “Matches finished. We were all relieved. Then hundreds of kids just came in and started playing until midnight. That’s the thing. They’re just mad about it.”

The Evolution Of Women’s Squash

World Squash Federation Chief Executive Andrew Shelley says the women’s game has grown dramatically in Egypt and around the globe.

“If you went back 15 years and before, [there were top players from] England, Australia, New Zealand. Obviously, a smattering of other players, but that was it,” Shelley said. “The world No. 1 now is Malaysian. We have very strong players from France, from Netherlands, from Hong Kong.”

Squash, tennis,and racquetball are cousins, but as U.S. Junior Women’s Coach Jack Wyant explains, there are a number of differences.

“The squash ball does not bounce nearly as much as the racquetball,” Wyant said. “So even though our court is slightly smaller than a racquetball court you tend to have to cover more of the court, into all four corners, so it’s a physically very grueling sport.”

The Women’s World Junior Championship is for players under the age of 19, but this year’s field includes some of the best female squash players of any age. The Women’s International Squash Players Association ranks five of the teens here among the top 40 players in the world. One of them is 18-year-old Amanda Sobhy. The Sea Cliff, N.Y., resident — ranked 21st overall — is this event’s defending champ. She only started playing about five years ago.

“I was playing tennis at the time, but I’d always end up being at squash tournaments, so I’d just pick up a racquet, hit a ball, practice a little bit. And people said, ‘Wow. You’re pretty good for just not playing at all,’” Sobhy said. “So I started playing squash and tennis, but since the swings are different I couldn’t play both. So my dad told me, ‘Either become really good at tennis or become really good at squash,’ and I chose squash.”

The Family Sport

Squash runs deep in the Sobhy family. Her parents met at a tournament her mother was running. Sobhy’s father, Khaled, is originally from Egypt and was a top junior player and a member of the national team there. Amanda’s older brother is a collegiate player and her younger sister, Sabrina, is also on the U.S. Women’s Junior Team.

“If you went back 15 years and before, [there were top players from] England, Australia, New Zealand. That was it. The world No. 1 now is Malaysian. We have very strong players from France, from Netherlands, from Hong Kong.”
– World Squash Federation Chief Executive Andrew Shelley

When asked if she can beat her dad on the court, Sobhy laughs.

“That happened a long time ago,” she said. “He knew it was coming. He’s just trying to keep the reins on my little sister.”

Amanda will soon be a familiar face on the courts at Harvard. She’ll be a student here this fall. Despite her family ties to Egypt, Sobhy was glad to see the tournament moved to the U.S.

“I’ve been to Egypt pretty every summer since I was 7, so I know that there will be tons and tons Egyptians there rooting for the Egyptians,” Sobhy said. “So it was nice that we were able to get it to the U.S. because now there’s going to be tons and tons of Americans cheering for us. But it’s a shame that it had to be moved because of what happened in Egypt.”

Amir Waghi has been the Egyptian national coach for 12 years and has guided male and female teams and players to 18 world titles. Waghi says he was glad the tournament was relocated.

“I think outside of Egypt is much better for me because it is out of the pressure. Because if it’s in Egypt there’s big pressure on you, so it’s good we play in the U.S. this year.”

Organizers have already announced the men’s and women’s junior championships will both be held in Cairo in 2012.

A Global Game

This year’s tournament has attracted teams from traditional squash strongholds like England, Germany and France, but teams from countries where the sport is still developing are here, too.

Keisha Jeffery, 18, plays for the South American nation of Guyana.

“It was nice that we were able to get [the tournament] to the U.S. because now there’s going to be tons and tons of Americans cheering for us. But it’s a shame that it had to be moved because of what happened in Egypt.”
– U.S. Women's Junior Squash Team Member Amanda Sobhy

“Where I’m from, squash isn’t that big. We have about three courts in the whole country,” Jeffrey said, laughing. “It’s a little tough to get anything out of squash in Guyana, but we try. We have a really good coach, one coach, actually. One elite coach for the whole country, so it’s good. We all have to share him.”

Jessica Turnbull is from Brisbane, Australia. She’s 16 and this is her first time at this event. Turnbull says everyone’s friendly, but facing top players can be intimidating.

“It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s amazing. It’s embarrassing sometimes, just when you do something really stupid against someone really good and you just feel, ‘Oh, my God, what did you just do?’” Turnbull said. “You just feel so embarrassed and you’re just embarrassed for the rest of the tournament, it’s just like, ‘Oh, no!'”

A Growth Market For Squash

Although the United States has the second seed in both the individual and team brackets, it is not typically a squash powerhouse. In fact, the U.S. is a growth market for the sport. U.S. Squash Communications Director Bill Buckingham says the emergence of top American teens like Amanda Sobhy and Olivia Blatchford coincides with dramatic changes at the junior level.

“Our high school championships started out with 15 teams six years ago. For the last three years, it’s been the largest squash tournament in the world, capping off at 125 teams this year,” Buckingham said. “The growth in scholastic squash has been great. The growth in collegiate squash has been incredible.”

After four days of matches, the field was whittled down to the four semifinalists — England’s Emily Whitlock, Amanda Sobhy for the U.S. and Egyptian teammates Nour El Tayeb and Nour El Sherbini.

Harvard’s Murr Center includes a row of five courts with bleachers behind them. The courts don’t have ceilings and the back walls are tempered glass to allow for easy viewing, but the semifinals shift to one with all-glass walls. When a player hits a full force shot, it sounds like a bird hitting a plate glass window.

Egyptian Teammates, Egyptian Opponents

In the end, the two Nours advanced to Monday night’s individual final. Nour El Sherbini won this tournament in 2009 at the age of 13 — beating the same opponent she faced Monday, teammate Nour El Tayeb. El Tayeb is ranked 18th in the world and has been the runner-up for the past two years.

This time around El Tayeb was victorious beating El Sherbini in four games.  El Tayeb says it’s tough to face a teammate and friend in a high pressure match.

“[Sherbini has] been the world champion before, she has nothing to lose. She plays with no pressure,” El Tayeb said. “It’s hard, you know. I want her to win, but I want me to win as well. But it was hard all the way, but I’m happy I won.”

Egyptian women have four of the last seven women’s junior team titles and now five of the past six individual crowns. After winning major points during the final match, the 18-year-old El Tayeb delivered an exclamation American sports fans are used to hearing… a sharp, jubilant “Yes!” The Egyptian says she always cries out in English, no matter where she’s playing.

And the individual awards ceremony concluded with something squash fans around the world are getting used to hearing … the Egyptian national anthem.