By Jay D. Prince
Photos by Marian Kraus
The 2010 U.S. Open Squash Championships, 18 months in the making, had what some football analysts might call the potential for becoming a “trap game” before it started—the Commonwealth Games were scheduled to begin in Delhi the day after the US Open final, and the Pritzker Pavillion at Millennium Park in Chicago could swallow up the court because of its spaciousness. But rather than suffering from the absence of the top British and Australian players who were in India, Greg Gaultier and Ramy Ashour who didn’t enter, and the late withdrawal of Amr Shabana due to injury, this year’s edition of the Open thrived.
Both the men’s and women’s draws featured a trio of American players, a first in any major PSA or WISPA event. And because both draws were filled with players who might otherwise have had to qualify when the full contingent of top-ranked players are present, each round had and edginess to it that is normally reserved for the quarterfinals, that stage of an event in which four players who don’t normally go deep in a tournament are driven to upset the favorites in hopes of reaching a semi or even a final.
Despite World No. 1, Nicol David, being in India to represent Malaysia in the Commonwealth Games, three former No. 1’s were in the Windy City—Natalie Grinham, her sister Rachael, and Vanessa Atkinson. Both Grinham’s stumbled early, opening up the draw for lesser-known players like Line Hansen and Manuela Manetta who each made their way to the semis. Manetta, who fell behind 2-1 to American Latasha Khan in the quarterfinals, overcame early jitters to win in a surprising five games. Khan, who dominated the court when cutting the ball off and keeping pressure on the Italian ultimately lost control as Manetta kept the pressure on.
On that Wednesday quarterfinal night, however, the buzz was about more than just the excitement of moving the matches from the classically beautiful University Club of Chicago to the stunningly unique Frank Gehry-designed Pavillion. It was about the prospect of the current junior girls’ World Champion, American Amanda Sobhy, continuing to shake up the WISPA rankings with a youthful exuberance that hasn’t been seen on the tour since David took charge of the top ranking five years ago.
Sobhy, who attacks the court with the confidence usually shown by more experienced players, dominated her quarterfinal over Aisling Blake. Despite winning the first game 15-13, Blake never had a chance. The crowd was clearly behind the American who some have said will become World No. 1 in the next five years. At just 17-yearsold Sobhy plays the game differently from most—she cuts the ball off at every opportunity, she slams overheads with her lefthanded hammer into the nick seemingly at will, and she is stoic even when an uncharacteristic string of errors interrupted her assault on Blake in the fourth game.
While surprising to find Sobhy in the final of an event as prestigious as the US Open, the championship round is becoming familiar for Sobhy in WISPA events. She has already won more WISPA titles by a player at her age than any other. And to watch her control every point she plays is to understand why she has had such remarkable success. As her game matures, and she develops the ability to counter equally-aggressive players, there is seemingly no end to where she might go.
“She already is a good player,” said Atkinson of Sobhy. “But she’s going to be an exceptional player. When she learns how to play against players who are going to keep her tight and deep, and that the opportunities aren’t going to come as quickly as she’s used to in the juniors—and she learns how to deal with that—she’s going to be very good. She’s got everything that’s hard to teach people, and the stuff she needs to work on is easy to teach.”
It’s precisely that experience, after 15 years on the tour, that Atkinson was able to bring to the final. Attacking the ball with her own volleys, keeping up the pace put Sobhy on the defensive—a position she hasn’t had to deal with much.
And Atkinson thoroughly enjoyed being back in the driver’s seat of a big tournament.
“It was nice to win, as it’s the first time in a while that I’ve played a tournament that size and actually got to the final,” said Atkinson. “The tournament itself was great—it was almost like a World Open, the way it was set up.”
The organizers of the event could easily have put the court on the Pritzker stage and called it good. But in a venue the size of Millennium Park, the court would have looked lost. Instead, they went the extra mile and put up temporary seating on top of the amphitheater digs, but it looked like it belonged there. And, more impressive were the enthusiastic crowds that brought an atmosphere usually reserved for professional basketball.
“The crowds were quite vocal, especially with an American on court,” commented Atkinson. “But it was great. They were cheering for good squash. We’re not working our bollox off to sit and play on a back court in front of three people. We want to play in front of crowds and show people what we can do. The crowd noise just brings out the best in everyone.”
Those crowds were equally boisterous throughout the men’s draw too. And again, they were eager for good squash with Julian Illingworth being the only American to progress beyond the opening round. Finland’s Olli Tuominen beat him in the second round, 3-1.
Taking full advantage of their opportunities, Tuominen powered his way through the first three rounds, including a brutal five-game opener over Italy’s Stephane Galifi, and a four-game nailbiter in the quarters with Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy. And Laurens Jan Anjema of the Netherlands, did the same, needing five games to overcome Germany’s Simon Rosner and three in the quarters to halt the return to form of Egypt’s Mohammed Abbas.
Tuominen has had some success over the years in the Tournament of Champions, reaching the semifinals in 2007 before falling to Anthony Ricketts. But Anjema has only progressed to the quarters or beyond in a 32-player draw twice in his career—and the U.S. Open was just the first in which he has reached the finals since the Swiss Open in 2002.
“I think the rest day before the quarters helped,” said Anjema when asked about playing five rounds. “The last three matches was almost like a new tournament. My match with Abbas in the quarters was one of my best matches where I moved extremely well. And then the semis against Omar Mossad was also a tough match.”
Anjema’s steady, athletic play proved to be too much for either Egyptian player and carried him to the final—where a third Egyptian, Wael El Hindi, had quietly lived up to his top-seeding to reach his first final since the Petrosport Open in 2008.
In the final, the court conditions had changed significantly in the outdoor atmosphere of early October in Chicago. While it had been relatively warm for the quarters and semis, the chill in the air on finals night slowed the court down to his advantage, a point that stuck in the mind of Anjema afterwards.
“I think I started pretty bad in the final,” said Anjema. “I didn’t really notice the fact that it was eight degrees centigrade, so I went on court with the same mind-set of playing like I did the previous two days. But Wael was aware of it and put me under pressure at the front of the court the first six or seven points straight away. He’s just more dangerous than on a warm court.”
Dangerous enough to secure his first U.S. Open title.
What truly made this year’s Open special was its partnership with METROSquash, the Chicago Urban Program, and the accompanying Education Expo. Before the event began, students in the public schools were visited by squash pros and representatives from various countries. Each school was paired with a country so that they could learn about the culture and the landscape of squash from each locale.
On September 30 and October 1, 2,000 Chicago Public School students attended the Expo in Millennium Park where they met players from their assigned countries and got to see them on court—cheering them on with signs they’d made.
The event was a huge Success with students excited and motivated by the opportunities to have not only learned about the countries but to also see some of their representatives in action.
United Airlines Chicago Impact Award
Like other Urban Programs, METROSquash emphasizes academics and community service as well as squash. METROSquash is on track to achieve a 100% college acceptance rate, a fact not lost on the judges considering 55 sports programs for the United Airlines Sport Chicago Impact Award. METROSquash won and will receive $50,000 over two years. To learn more, visit metrosquash.org.