The meteoric rise in the level of college squash was never more evident than this weekend.
Between the men's and women's divisions, there were three former winners of the title who only made it to the quarters or semis. Many of the quarter-final matches were so well played that they looked like finals. Ali and Amanda both faced new challengers this year as they tried to repeat as national champions.
After the pressure-cooker of team nationals, the players emotional tanks are often running low for the individual event, which can make for topsy-turvy results. Some players find a new level without the added stress of team competition while others find it difficult to keep their intensity up.
Amanda and The Women
To take home the Ramsay Cup this year, Amanda had to fend off the no. 2 seeded freshman, Kanzy El-Defrawy. This newcomer from Trinity is currently the only player in college squash who can knock on Amanda's door. Kanzy grew up playing at Heliopolis in Cairo with the likes of Ali and Ramy Ashour. Kanzy brings tremendous physicality to the game with hard, penetrating drives. Often, she retrieves would-be winners by diving across the court.
On her way to the final, Kanzy defeated Haley Mendez, our no. 3 player, Laura Gemmell, the 2010 national champion and Millie Tomlinson, the 2011 national champion. By the weekend of Individuals, she and Amanda had already played twice in the same month. Amanda been victorious in their regular season meeting, though Kanzy became the first player to take a game off of Amanda in a CSA match. Next, they met in the Howe Cup finals. Amanda absorbed Kanzy's powerful hitting and volleyed ferociously to win in straight sets.
As Amanda worked her way through the draw, she refused to let her concentration lag and did not lose more than 5 points in any one game up until the final.
When they met on Sunday, Amanda came out strong and surged to an early lead. Kanzy dove for a ball early in the first game and needed to have a minor wound wrapped as Amanda waited and tried to stay warm. Amanda maintained focus through the break and won the first game 11-4 and then the second 11-5.
The third game would prove much tighter. With her back against the wall, Defrawy played with renewed urgency. She stepped up the pace and went ahead 2-0 to start. Amanda caught up and the score was neck and neck until Amanda reached match ball at 10-9. Kanzy hung on and won the point to force a tiebreak. She was reasserting herself on the match and seemed to be turning the momentum. Amanda snapped it back to win the next two points and take the championship! She is now 30-0 in her college career, an incredible accomplishment.
Women's Final Video:
Game 3 (Check out a great rally with some lightning quick exchanges in the front at 4:19.)
Haley Mendez also had a great tournament, taking 10th place. In the first round, she took down Penn's Haidi Lala, an Egyptian with phenomenal hands. In the second round, she was no match for Kanzy. In the second round consol, she beat Jesse Pacheco, a strong athlete who plays no. 2 for Cornell.
Then came a major breakthrough for Haley as she beat Pam Chua, Stanford's no.1 who was seeded 7th! It was a phenomenal match, with Haley coming through 11-7 in the fifth. In the finals of the second round consol, she faced Cata Pelaez, Trinity's no. 2 player from Bogota. Haley fought hard but lost to the senior 11-9 in the fifth.
Captain Natasha Kingshott had an unlucky draw. In the first round, she lost to the no. 5 seed, Yan Xin Tan of Penn. In the first round consol, she lost to Michelle Gemmell in four. Still, she finished the season with awesome records of 14-1 in team competition and 7-0 in the IVY League.
After Michelle beat Natasha in the consolation, she met Rachel Liezman, who she had been dying for a shot at for two months. The Princeton freshman had defeated her by a razor-thin margin in their heartbreaking regular season match. This time, Michelle was able to take away Rachel's dangerous boast with tight drives, and impose her own deadly short game to win in four games. On Sunday, Michelle won the First Round Consolation, rolling past Penn's senior captain, Pia Trikha. It was a satisfying stamp on the end of her season.
Julianne Chu represented Harvard in the Holleran Division. She beat Michela Martin, of Bowdoin and Annie Bellaine of Yale to reach the Semifinals. There, she lost to Nina Scott, the no. 3 player from Dartmouth.
Laura Gemmell battled a rash of injuries (hip, back, hamstring, arm..The list goes on!) She hoped to keep her body in one piece. She beat Natalie Babjukova of Trinity and then Jesse Pacheco before facing Kanzy in the quarter finals. Laura struggled to keep with Kanzy's furious pace and lost the first two games quickly. Out of breath and facing possibly her last game in college, Laura snuck the third 12-10 with a cheeky lob-drop game, shocking the crowd (and maybe even her own coaches!) She had nothing left in the tank for the fourth and her impressive squash career came to a close.
Ali and The Men
In his first few matches on the weekend, Ali struggled to find his rhythm. He has always had a habit starting a bit too loosely and then storming back to win with applause-earning wizardry. On the day of the semi-final against Princeton, Todd contained him and asserted his own short game. He wouldn't allow Ali any openings. For the first time in Ali's college career, he was unable to find the solution and questions had hung in his head all week. As the no. 2 seed in the early rounds of Individuals, his fluidity and lightning-quick deceptiveness were nowhere to be found. Instead, he seemed to be conciously deliberating over each shot; slowed down by self-analysis.
He beat Matthew Sunderland, Cornell's no. 5, by scores of 9,9,10, much closer than expected for an early round match. Next, he was pushed to four tight games by Sam Kang at 8, (9), 9, 9. In the quarter-finals, he beat Andres Duany of Rochester in four. It was the first time in four meetings that he had lost a game to the rangy Peruvian. To have a chance against Khalifa in the semi's, he would have find the the instinctive game that had evaded him all week.
Ali and Amr Khaled Khalifa have played each in the World Jr. Championship finals, (Khalifa won in 2010) British Jr. Open finals (Ali won in 2011) and countless junior tournaments in Egypt going back a decade. There is little gap between these two; both being tactically brilliant, dynamic and fearless. Khalifa has unparalleled volleying abilities and Ali can work magic under any amount of pressure. Off the court, they are also good friends who share tremendous respect.
The semi-final was a match for the ages. Khalifa came out firing at an incredible pace that is rarely seen in college squash. The creativity and speed of thought of these two top Egyptians was on full display. Ali kept with the pace and Khalifa slowed, allowing Ali to take the first 11-9. It seemed that Khalifa would fade completely after Ali dominated the second 11-3. But Khalifa was was undaunted be down 0-2 to the defending champ and he took the third game 11-7 and the fourth 11-6. Ali was weathering an early storm in each game. Khalifa would push the pace and Ali would go with him, looking to capitalize at the end of the game when Khalifa tired. The fifth was point for point through the middle and then Ali pulled away to reach match ball at 10-8. Many players would turn defensive when down two match balls, but Khalifa stayed true to his game and stayed aggressive on every point. He made an incredible run, shooting at every opening and winning 5 of the next 6 points to take the match 13-11.
Ali was heartbroken but, as with all great competitors, he will never forget the lessons from this match. Considering his performance in the first few rounds, he did exceptionally well to elevate his game against such a tough competitor.
Men's Semifinal Video:
Great squash always looks more pedestrian on camera, with the court seeming shorter than it actually is. Take my word for it, Ali's get at (0:11) was breathtaking in person.
Ditto to Ali's flick at (0:27).
Above are highlights from the finals of the 2010 World Jr. Championships in Quito, Ecuador.
It's interesting to see the difference in pace between the two matches since they have both grown into their bodies more since junior squash.
In the first round, Brandon McLaughlin played like a man possessed, crushing Princeton's no. 4 player, Dylan Ward, by scores of 2,2,4. He knew he would have a an uphill battle in the second round against Khalifa. He put on a strong showing in the first, though he lost 12-10. In the next two games Khalifa's talents showed through as he beat Brandon 11-3 and 11-5. Brandon's last match of the year was a long, tough one that he ended up losing to Chris Hanson, the lefty no. 1 from Dartmouth.
After receiving a bye in the first round, Tommy faced Alex Arjoon in the second. He was able to outlast, the F&M player from Guyana, 11-9 in the fifth. He then fell to Vivek Dinodia, the Princeton freshman who went on to win the Molloy Division.
Nigel Koh had a tough weekend. He was suffering from illness and lost in 3 games in the first round to the 5th seed, Ahmed Abdel Khalek of Bates. He then had a long battle against Neil Martin of Yale. Neil is incredibly fit and light on his feet. As Nigel grew weary, Neil was able to turn the tide his way, winning by scores of (10) 10. (7), 4, 7.
Gary faced Sam Kang in the first round, the Singaporian no. 2 for Princeton. Kang had slightly better control of the T and made very few errors. He defeated Gary in three close games 11,12,8 (Fun fact: Sam Kang's parents were in the same class in high school in Singapore as Nigel's.)
In the first round of consolation, Gary stormed past Michael Sunderland. He then faced Adam "The Dude" Perkiomaki of Rochester, who has added some real weapons to his game during his college career. The Dude's hands were on that day and took Gary down in four games.