by James Zug
In January 2010 just before the men’s final of the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, two teenaged girls from New York stepped out onto the portable glass court in Grand Central Terminal played a quick exhibition match. The taller girl won 3-1.
Her name was Amanda Sobhy.
Six years later Sobhy again walked onto the court before the men’s final at the ToC, but a lot had changed. Sobhy had gone to capture the world juniors, go undefeated at Harvard, nail down two U.S. national titles and reach world No. 8.
And women’s squash was no longer an afterthought at the ToC: her match was a match. The tournament was founded in 1930, but it was not until 1991 that a women’s draw was grafted onto it with a $10,000 softball draw added to the four men’s hardball divisions.
A decade later, women returned for a four-woman, non-ranking mini-tournament. That iteration occurred four times in the next decade; in other years, tournament director John Nimick staged exhibitions like the “Elite Junior Women’s Exhibition” that Sobhy (and Olivia Blatchford) gave in 2010; and in 2002 and 2003 and then again in 2012 and 2013, it was a bonafide, sixteen-woman tournament.
But the prize money for those draws was small ($20,000 in 2002, for instance) until 2014 when Nimick raised the purse. All the top players, including Nicol David, now would come to Grand Central. In 2015, the money went up again, so high that every woman’s paycheck was the same size as every man’s. But the women’s draw was still at sixteen, half the size of the men’s draw.
This year the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions became the third PSA World Series event, after the U.S. Open in 2013 and the Windy City Open in 2015, to offer full parity. Both ToC draws had thirty-two players who got paid the same. (The only gendered difference was that a half-dozen of women’s first-round matches were consigned to regular courts at nearby clubs, while all the main-draw men’s matches were on the glass court in Grand Central.)
Nimick was rewarded for completing the long journey to ToC parity with an American reaching the final. It was the first time since Kenton Jernigan won the tournament in 1991 that an American played a match that counted on the last night. The outside world paid attention: the New York Times ran a story the next day.
Sobhy slashed through the draw. The twenty-two year-old southpaw toppled defending champion Raneem El Welily in four in the second round and Alison Waters in the quarters in three—she had never beaten either woman before—and then outslugged another young upstart, the eighteen-year-old Nouran Gohar in three in the semis. (Gohar, the latest Egyptian prodigy, had just days earlier won the U19 draw at the British Junior Open).
It was a remarkable, giant-killing run that confirmed that Sobhy is a top-five player. Alas, she ran out of gas in the finals against Nour El Sherbini. She snagged one game and tantalizingly held a game point in another but El Sherbini was hitting with greater clarity and crispness.
Sobhy was playing in her first World Series final; El Sherbini, on the other hand, had played in plenty of major finals but had never won one. The Egyptian with the long strands of hair that drape her face and neck late in matches has graced on the world stage for so long that you’d be forgiven for thinking she had already passed that milestone. She grabbed the first of her three World Juniors titles when she was just thirteen; she has won six PSA titles (including four in the U.S.). She’s reached the finals of the British Open and the World Championship. She’s just turned twenty.
And now she’s the first female champion of Tournament of Champions to win five matches to claim the title. “I’m never ever going to forget this,” El Sherbini said after her victory. “I am really happy.”
Sobhy won’t forget it either.
The distaff draw was defined by upsets and the new generation coming to the fore. The men were much more predictable: the seeding proved true. Ankle injuries though, scumbled the draw: last year’s semifinalist Miguel Angel Rodriguez ripped his during a morning warm-up and struggled mightily in his first-round loss to Borja Golan. At 3-3 of the first game of the semifinal match between Gregory Gaultier and Nick Matthew, Gaultier snapped his ankle and had to be carried off the court.
The men’s final saw Mohamed Elshorbagy overcome Matthew in five. It was a replica, not of their ToC final last year (Elshorbagy took it in four) but the finals of the 2013 Qatar Classic. In both matches, Matthew came back from a 1-2 deficit to win the fourth game 11-6, only to have his doors blown off by a resurgent Elshorbagy in the fifth.
Besides Sobhy, the rest of the Americans in the ToC did much as expected. Olivia Fiechter lost a long five-gamer in the qualies to Nikki Todd, while the other Olivia, Ms. Blatchford, also had a successful ToC: she came through both her qualies easily and then lost in a good four-gamer to Laura Massaro in the main draw.
Five American men lost in the opening round of the qualies: Chris Gordon in four to Declan James and the other Chris, Mr. Hanson, in five to Gregoire Marche. Todd Harrity, the ToC wild card, nipped a game off Fares Dessouki. Perhaps the most exciting result from the qualies, as far as the New York crowd was concerned, was former Columbia star Ramit Tandon’s toppling of Ali Farag, 11-8 in the fifth.
“Squash’s Grandest Tournament” was one new tagline for the Tournament of Champions and J.P. Morgan Chase emblazoned new archways for the event with that slogan. If you couldn’t be there in person, a team of contributors, under Beth Rasin’s guidance, provided glimpses in every modern way. From Seattle, Matt Lombardi blogged, penned the cogent previews in the Engineer (the daily info sheet) and tweeted to its 2,700 followers; Clayton Gates posted to Instagram; and Mike Pepper took candid photographs, many of which appeared on a social-media video screen next to the court.
The Bracket Racket—the ToC’s version of the NCAA men’s basketball bracket—gathered a lot of more interest. Last year I won the women’s draw, beating just two other people. This year 103 people entered the men’s draw; fifty-three did the women’s draw. (I came in fifth in the women’s draw—my game is slipping.)
The other ToC motto was “All the Squash Stars Shine Brightest in Grand Central Terminal.” This year Nimick’s team produced images of sixteen players in the style of Grand Central’s main concourse ceiling constellations and made sixteen playing cards—kind of like baseball cards.
Each player mentioned outside interests. El Welily liked jigsaw puzzles. Nick Matthew liked Sheffield Wednesday. Migel Angel Rodriguez liked go karting.
Sobhy liked skydiving.
Indeed. America’s best launched herself into the heavens last month and now she’s brightly flashing through the squash firmament.
Demer Holleran Given Leadership Award
The third-annual Tournament of Champions Women’s Leadership Award was given to Demer Holleran at a mid-week luncheon in Grand Central. More than 190 women and men attended the function.
Ashley Bernhard, the deputy chair of the board of the PSA, welcomed the guests and announced the breaking news that by the end of 2017 all eight of the PSA World Series events would have full prize-money parity.
Manuela Perez from CitySquash and Emma Montero from StreetSquash eloquently spoke of the opportunities their urban programs gave them.
John Nimick, the director of the ToC, then presented the Leadership Award to Holleran. A U.S. Squash Hall of Famer, Holleran won nine National Singles titles and ten National Doubles titles. At Princeton she earned four letters in two sports and two letters in a third; on the squash court she captured three national individual titles and led the Tigers to the national team title in 1989. On the pro tour, she reached world No. 21 in 1996 and spent ten years in the top fifty. From 1992 to 2001 she coached the women at Penn, leading the Quakers in 2000 to an undefeated season and a national championship. She also ran an all-girls squash camp in the summers.
In 2007 she opened the 46,000 square-foot Fairmount Athletic Club outside of Philadelphia. FAC has thirteen singles and one doubles court and is a hotbed of junior play (two of the ten national junior age-group champions last year came from FAC—Sean Hughes in the BU19 and Meghna Sreedhar in the GU15—and thirty players came to the National Juniors, the most of any program in the country). Holleran is the only winner of three of the highest awards in US Squash: the Feron’s Wedgwood Sportsmanship Trophy (1989), the President’s Cup (1999) and the Achievement Bowl (2010).
Previous winners of the ToC Women’s Leadership Award are Natalie Grainger in 2014 and Linda Charman Elriani in 2015.