The Strongest Tree: Amanda Sobhy

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By James Zug

It is almost ten in the morning and Amanda Sobhy is finally coming to school. It is her senior year and she’s already been accepted to college and from outward appearances, she could be another teenager with senioritis, an overstuffed backpack slung over her shoulders, her eyes locked on her latest text, blithely rolling into school late. Not Amanda Sobhy, world junior squash champion. She is in the middle of another intense day of training. Up early, she has already worked out for a brutal, muscle-crunching hour under the care of her personal trainer. Grabbing some chocolate milk in a café across the street from school, she now is rushing to her Spanish class. She tells the security guard at the front door that she’s got a guest, a reporter who is “doing a feature article on me.”

The guard unblinkingly says back to her, “Who are you?”

Sobhy’s not embarrassed. North Shore High School is on the main road in Glen Head, a quiet village tucked just beyond the interstitial Long Island highways that are almost always backed up when the traffic report airs on New York’s radio stations. It is a big school and Sobhy (pronounced “So-be”) is not the only well-known athlete. A junior cross-country runner appeared this winter in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd, just like Sobhy did two years ago.

While I wait for Sobhy to sort out the security pass, I pick up Viking View and on the back page of the school newspaper are interviews with three nationally ranked athletes at the school: a fencer and a sailor and Sobhy. (“Q: Do you get nervous before playing? A: It depends on the person I am playing.”). As we walk to her class, striding past maroon lockers and blue cement walls, she tells me that her squash achievements supply very little social capital. “I’ve lost status here at North Shore because I’m never around.”

This is very true. Her junior year, she missed 27 days of school, one under the official maximum. Senior year, with her acceptance at Harvard and her world championship, the maximum has become flexible and her total has doubled. It could be the ultimate irony. Sobhy travels around the world—all six continents, dozens of countries—and is one of the best twenty women in a sport, but if you aren’t around, you aren’t around and the immediacy and introspection of teenage life has left her just another kid in the middle of the North Shore social totem pole.

“I only started playing five years ago,” Sobhy said, “when I had spent many years watching my older brother play tournaments and one day I said, ‘Now I am ready.’” Sobhy was a good athlete growing up. She played volleyball and softball. She started at left halfback on the varsity soccer team as a freshman and played on a traveling soccer team. In eighth grade she broke her right ankle, shattering her tibia, playing softball—she stepped on first base and the bag, unbolted, collapsed and she tumbled over. Her older brother Omar was playing the junior squash circuit (he is now a junior at George Washington University, playing #2 on the ladder; this winter he won the B tournament at the national intercollegiates) and after she recovered from her leg injury, she eased into squash and out of other sports.

Without Omar to distract her father, she probably would have begun playing much earlier. Khaled Sobhy grew up in Cairo, about a mile and a half from the Heliolopis Club. He started squash at twelve, tossing aside swimming and soccer. In 1977 he won the Egyptian national U17 title; two years later he took the U19 title. He graduated from Cairo University in 1981 with a major in marketing and while doing his mandatory national military service he worked at a bank. Sobhy was pretty good. He played with Hosni Muburak. He faced off against all the top players, including Jahangir Khan. He struggled to reach the main draw at the British Open and the World Open, but scratched together enough wins at tournaments around Europe to reach #30 in the world.

After the 1985 World Open in Cairo (he lost in the final round of the qualies to Mike Maclean, a Scot), Khaled migrated. “I couldn’t make a living,” he said. After a brief stop in Belgium, he went to Toronto where his mother lived (his parents divorced when he was a child and he stayed with his father in Cairo) and then landed a job at the Cascade Club, a new fitness club in Vail, CO. He worked there for a couple of years. During this time, he met Jodie Larson, a national B champion (most improved MSRA player in 1986) who had picked up the game when she was 25 years-old. Larson was helping run a tournament at the old Uptown Club at 86th and Lexington in New York in which Khaled was playing a young Richard Chin. After the first game she had to go up to Khaled and tell him that he’d be disqualified if he didn’t put on eye goggles. Khaled grumpily put on the goggles, but left them on his forehead.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 2.13.35 PMThey fell in love, nonetheless, and married. In 1988 Khaled moved east, taking a weekend job at the Creek Club on Long Island; during the week he worked as an accountant and later in business development and investment in the Middle East at Sterling Grace Capital Management, the New York investment firm. The family moved out to Long Island (Jodie grew up there, in Baldwin) and settled on the North Shore, in Sea Cliff, a funky, wind-chimed enclave with narrow streets, Victorian homes, a dozen small parks and old-time businesses like “Bart’s Barber Shop.”

In 1993 Khaled quit the weekend gig at the Creek; seven years later Jodie and Khaled divorced and Khaled retired from Grace. Beginning to coach again at the Creek, he first trained Omar, who was an excellent junior player. When Amanda started taking squash seriously and Omar headed off to Exeter and then to college, Khaled turned to her as his next protégé.

At the same time that Jodie Larson was scolding Khaley Sobhy for not wearing goggles, another New York couple met at a squash club. They were peering at a bulletin board, he at the men’s D ladder, she at the women’s A. “These guys are terrible,” she said to a friend, pointing to the D ladder. He scoffed. They fell in love and got married.

He took their eldest child to a squash tournament when she was five. “When do I get to play?” she asked innocently when he finished his match. He took her out on court. The racquet was taller than she was. Her first swing, she hit a perfect roll corner. Two years later, she went to her first tournament, a U13 at Westchester Squash in Mamaroneck. She lost her match 9-0, 9-0, 9-0. Triple bagel. She came off the court in tears. “I was devastated,” she said, “my first tournament was already over and I hadn’t won a point.” She didn’t know about consolations. Drying her tears, she went out for another match and in this one she won some points although again losing three-love.

A couple of years later, Olivia Blatchford was the great hope of U.S. squash. Her opponent in the first round of a tournament was a girl from Long Island, with a funny last name who had just started playing a few weeks before, basically a beginner. This was the beginning of Sobhy v. Blatchford. The first time she served, Sobhy’s racquet flew out of hand. “I was so nervous, so intimidated,” Sobhy said. “I was crying in between games.” Blatchford went up 9-0, 9-0, 8-0. Remembering how she had been humiliated in her first tournament six years earlier, Blatchford tried to let Sobhy win a point. But she couldn’t manage it. So with her father Pete urging her, Blatchford served out and then deliberately tinned. “I never triple bagel anyone in a tournament,” Blatchford said. “Amanda was just a beginner. I didn’t want her to not want to play again.”

“Now I am starting to regret it,” Blatchford added. Over the next few years, Blatchford reached unprecedented heights. At age 14 she reached the finals of the U19 and played for the U.S. at the world juniors. She won the U15 at the British Junior Open (down 1-2 in the final) to become just the second American to win at the world’s most prestigious alljunior tournament (Michele Quibell won the U17 in 2001).

If Blatchford was Federer, the smooth champion, Sobhy became the upstart, southpaw Nadal. In 2006 she came in sixth place at the U15 nationals; in 2007 she won the U15; in 2008 the U17 (down 0-2 in the final versus Yarden Odinak); in 2009 she lost in the finals of the U19 to Blatchford.

Two months before she also reached the finals of the U17 at the British Junior Open, but lost meekly to the Egyptian Nour El Tayeb.

And like Federer & Nadal, Blatchford was considered the greatest American junior ever—until Sobhy came along. Blatchford hasn’t beaten Sobhy since the U.S. Junior Open at Trinity in December 2009. After that loss, Sobhy’s game has soared. She beat Blatchford in back-to-back U19 nationals, 9-11, 11-2, 11-5, 8-11, 11-8 in 2010 and 11-2, 13-11, 11-4 in 2011.

Branching out, Sobhy started playing a lot of pro tournaments. She played four WISPA events in 2008 and ten in 2009 (including qualifying into the World Open, which was a significant accomplishment for a 16-year-old). In 2010 she entered 14 pro tournaments. She won five. In two of the finals she beat Blatchford, 3-0 in Philadelphia in January and 11-6 in the fifth in Boston in May after being down 0-2. (Blatchford did win her first WISPA tournament that same month, beating Miranda Ranieri 14-12 in the fifth in the finals in Southport.) WISPA took such prominence that Sobhy missed the 2011 adult nationals because she was playing in back-to-back pro tournaments, in Montreal and the Caymans (Blatchford lost to Natalie Grainger in the finals). She has also begun playing in pro doubles events and in December 2010 won the richest women’s doubles event in history, the Turner Cup, with Natalie Grainger. Sobhy is now the #1 ranked player on the WDSA tour.

Sobhy’s training was focused on the world championships. At the 2009 world juniors in Chennai, India, she had an incredibly mixed performance. She beat the third seed Laura Gemmel, in the biggest win of her career. She followed it up later that day with a disappointing three-game loss to an Egyptian, Kanzy El Defrawy. It was as if she was new to gravity.

But a few days later in the semis of the team competition, Sobhy shocked everyone. She hammered Nour El Sherbini in three games, not even a week after Sherbini had been crowned junior world champion. It made the Gemmel win seem small potatoes. “It was like a bucket of ice thrown in the Egyptians’ faces,” said Khaled Sobhy.

Last year, it came tScreen Shot 2014-07-30 at 2.13.29 PMogether even better in Cologne, Germany at the 2010 world juniors. In the semis, she again faced Sherbini. She won an extremely tight three-gamer: 12-10, 14-12, 11-9. At 9-10 in the third, Sherbini served to Sobhy’s forehand. In one confident, fluid movement, she cranked a bullet into the cross-court nick with her left hand and reached out her right to shake hands with Sherbini. When she got off court, Sobhy broke down and cried with joy and relief.

The next day, she faced Nour El Tayeb, last year’s finalist and a woman Sobhy had never beaten in three attempts. She dropped the first game 11-3 and then came out firing and won the next three. She was world junior champion. It was her 17th birthday.

Since winning the world title, Sobhy’s WISPA ranking cracked the top 20, reaching a high of 17 in April 2011. She also began to face up to the next step in her life: going to college.

At this level, it is not a given. Blatchford has taken a different approach, one more in common with the rest of the pro tour. She is not going to college but rather playing the WISPA tour full-time. That is no surprise because she hasn’t gone to high school in a traditional sense.

After her eighth grade year at Poly Prep, Blatchford spent her freshman year in high school in Yorkshire and then homeschooled herself the last three years, doing the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s independent study program.

Sobhy assumed she’d go to Yale. She was all set to go and had the bumper sticker on the car, but in the fall of her senior year was told she needed to take the SAT’s another time. It was difficult to do so, as she was playing in WISPA tournaments on those weekends. Then she went to Harvard on a whim—she hadn’t even put Harvard down as a school where her SATs should be sent. She fell in love with Cambridge and the school and got on with Mike Way, the new coach and voila, the Eli became a Crimson. When the revolution hit Cairo this winter, the world juniors were switched to Harvard, meaning that Sobhy would be able to defend her title not on the home courts of her chief rivals but on what in the a few months time will become her collegiate home courts.

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The key question is whether Sobhy can continue to develop her squash game while battling with the distractions and demands of college life. Some predict that her game with regress, that she’ll lose focus. No doubt that will happen for stretches.

But her track record shows she will probably stick to it. “Amanda is one of the hardest workers I have ever played with,” said Shaun Johnstone, her sparring partner and a pro at Piping Rock. “She loves being pushed every time she steps on court and is so competitive. She never wants you to take it easy on her.”

She’s already led a complete double- life. She’s a normal kid. Her room is jammed with posters of Ramy Ashour and Amr Shabana, tournament posters, trophies, framed magazine covers of herself and a photo of her with Andy Roddick (when he stopped in at CityView). A Harrow racquet is on the bed; as a surprise birthday present last year, Harrow made seventeen Sobhy racquets in honor of her world title. Her blue-glass world championship trophy resides downstairs on a shelf above the kitchen table. She’s gone to the prom. She’s on the honor roll. She’s taking tough classes, Spanish, math.

Music is a major part of her life. Her mother Jodie gives flute lessons five days a week, teaches music in local elementary schools and is in an 80-piece orchestra. Sobhy is in the school band, playing the French horn, rehearsals every day, very serious and involved (“Progress— I love you,” said the band leader, David Soto, at one practice. “Embrace those eighth notes. Keep the vowels darker. Get off the first note quicker.”) And she lends her alto voice to two choruses. She’s in the school chorus, with practices every other morning before school and she is in the madrigal choir, which has gorgeous, soaring two-hour practices in the evenings. Sobhy might be as proud of the fact that she made the madrigal choir as a freshman— the only one in her class chosen— as she is to be world junior champion.

It is a cold winter’s evening, a Wednesday in February. We are shuttling around Locust Valley. Amanda is driving, her mother Jodie is in passenger seat and her younger sister Sabrina is in the back.

Sabrina, an eighth grader, has begun to pick up squash, following in the family tradition of watching an older sibling play until interest gets piqued. She is just 13 and still is known to many by her nickname Beans, but this past season the beans started to get counted. She was the number- one ranked girl in the U19s (both her sister and Blatchford didn’t play enough tournaments to get ranked) and qualified to be on the U.S. team at the world juniors. Sabrina has also played in five WISPA events and everyone is saying that she is as talented or more than her sister.

“Bean is going to take over,” Jodie jokes as we drive along.

“Not till I retire,” Amanda replied.

The two girls and their mother are talking away, laughing, gossiping, ribbing each other, going over the day, the plans for the next day. It is a loud, warm feeling, with everything improvised. Dinner is on the fly, homework done at a small table in the hall. Jodie and Khaled divorced in 2000 and he lives just around the corner and the girls often spend the night at his place. Amidst all the giggling, Jodie’s cell phone rings. She fumbles for her phone and answers it, saying “hello” a half dozen times.

“Strange,” she says. “No one there.”

A minute later, the phone rings again. Same story. A third time, and the Sobhy girls are in hysterics. It is Sabrina crank calling from the backseat, using *67 to hide her cell phone number.

Amanda drops Sabrina off at Piping Rock and then leaves herself at the Creek, where her father is waiting and Jodie rushes home to make a flute lesson. Sobhy then drills for an hour on court with her father, a bit of talking, arguing, discussing, but mostly a lot of Khaled not moving and Sobhy continuously dashing all over the court returning the ball to him. She swigs some Gatorade and then straps on her iPod and does court sprints and sit-ups and jumps rope and stretches.

It is a major workout for an ordinary 17 year-old. Sobhy does it every day. When Alicia McConnell, the first great American junior, was a senior in high school thirty years ago, she played volleyball, softball, basketball and tennis (when she got to Penn she picked up lacrosse and played varsity there and made the 1984-85 national team). She rarely trained before school.

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Nowadays, to be world-class you have to train full-time on one sport. Every day top-flight young athletes are doing this. Historically, this has been a rarity in squash, which has long held onto its genteel origins and maintained some sort of well-rounded, amateur ideal for its high school and college players. What Blatchford and Sobhy have done is to bring in the lessons of tennis, golf, gymnastics—you name it—into the world of U.S. squash.

Here is the difference: Alicia McConnell turned pro her senior year in college; Amanda Sobhy has been playing pro events since she was a freshman in high school.

Her game has improved immensely in the past couple of years because of this hard work. “She has taken huge steps forward in the last two years, really matured as a squash player,” Johnstone said. “She is fitter and more disciplined and this has allowed her to move to the next level. Amanda is definitely not at her best. I think she has more to grow and will show us in the future.” Her national junior coach, Jack Wyant, agreed. “Amanda has taken her game up a level even compared to last summer (when she won the world junior title in Germany). She still has devastating pace, and her movement is better and she is making the correct tactical decisions. Off court, Amanda is an easy going, funny teenager—the exact opposite of what she’s like on court.”

Many parents of elite players have a mixed reaction to the institutions through which their child is passing. One of Khaled Sobhy’s complaints is about intensity. Once Amanda played in a U.S. v. Canada junior weekend, and he was shocked to hear that she had spent a couple of hours hanging out in a swimming pool. Or another time, Amanda arrived in a foreign country after a long trip. After checking in at the hotel, Khaled wanted her to go straight to the courts to train; another coach wanted them to go sightsee. This is the difference between squash as a pastime and squash as a profession.

There are no breaks in the Sobhy system. On weekends, Khaled drives Amanda around the greater New York area to get her competition with top players, male or female. She often goes to Rye to hit with Natalie Grainger, who has become a key mentor, or to Bernardo Samper in Westchester or Wael El Hindi at CityView. Because of the distance and traffic, these are almost full-day affairs. (When I complained that there were only three squash clubs in my new hometown, Jodie said, “Oh, we’d love to have three clubs here. We are in the squash boondocks.”) Sobhy has trained with Liz Irving in Amsterdam and Sarah FitzGerald in Australia. When the madrigal choir did a tour of Argentina, Khaled let Amanda go only because he found a squash club in Buenos Aires where she could train each day. In the summer, the Sobhys go home to Cairo where Amanda sees relatives and gets to train with the world’s best. Starting in 2008, Khaled has run a small, elite squash camp, mostly in Cairo, but sometimes in Alexandria or at Sharm el-Sheikh. The camp is small—between a dozen and 18 players—and is widely considered to be one of the best because of its high-quality of instruction and competition.

Khaled promised Amanda a trip anywhere in the world with her best friend, Jackie Shea, if she won the world juniors last year. The trip is scheduled for Spain this summer and the main requirement from Amanda is that there will be no squash, whatsoever.

A couple of times a week, Sobhy goes to Power Fitness, a health club in nearby Glen Head. There, Joe Brusca trains her. Brusca played football at CW Post and trains a local pro lacrosse team. He met the Sobhys five years ago when he was working with Sabrina’s soccer team and Khaled approached him about training his daughters. He hadn’t heard of squash and quickly watched some video on the Internet to get up to speed. Brusca is now in the inner circle of Team Sobhy, talking after tournament matches, plotting weight loss, planning sessions.

The day is never over quickly for Sobhy. After the morning workout, a full-day of classes, another ninety minutes on court in the afternoon, a two-hour choir practice and bolted meals and gnawed snacks of apples and almonds, it is nearly ten in the evening. Amanda heads to get an hourlong deep-tissue massage and then sleep. Tomorrow, she’s got to do it again.

There are a lot of mottos in Amanda Sobhy’s world, but the one that fits her best might be the one from her gym. It says, “The greater the wind, the stronger the trees.”

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