Amanda Sobhy squashes the competition
Squash phenom Amanda Sobhy had a pretty good year last year: She won the 2010 Women's World Junior Championships on June 29 -- her 17th birthday -- becoming the first American to win a world singles title. In September, she became the youngest person ever to reach the finals of the U.S. Open. The icing on the cake: In October, she was accepted as a freshman to Harvard.
Sobhy, now 18, has two advantages working in her favor -- superstar genes and an Egyptian heritage that embraces squash much like Americans revere football. In fact, the whole Sobhy family is involved with the sport. Her father and coach, Khaled, was born and raised in Egypt, where he played as one of the top-ranked juniors from ages 13 to 19. Sobhy's mother, Jodie Larson, was a U.S. national champ in her 20s. Sobhy's older brother Omar, 20, was ranked No. 7 in the U.S. in 2008, and her younger sister Sabrina, 14, plays No. 3 on the U.S. squad (Amanda plays No. 1).
espnW spoke with Sobhy on Day 3 of this year's Women's World Junior Championships, which were originally slated to be held in Cairo but were moved to Cambridge, Mass., following Egypt's recent political turmoil. (Sobhy lost in the semifinals to Egypt's Nour El Sherbini.) Here's what the young Egyptian-American, ranked 20th in the world, had to say about her Egyptian competition, and whether she and Sabrina are the next Venus and Serena.
espnW: Squash isn't a major sport in America. How did you get started as a New Yorker?
Amanda Sobhy: I started at age 12, which is pretty late. My brother, Omar, started at an earlier age, and when he would play in the junior tournaments, I was always dragged along. I'd hit by myself on open courts and people would comment, "Wow, you're good!" At that time, I played tennis. I started trying to play both but it was too hard -- the swings are completely different. My dad said, "Pick one and become really good at it." So I picked squash.
espnW: What do you love most about the sport?
AS: I love the competitiveness. Everyone in my family is a huge competitor and we love to battle it out on court. I also love the diversity; I'm always meeting people from different countries and have traveled to Australia, Singapore, Guatemala, the Cayman Islands, Europe, Egypt.
espnW: When's the last time you were in Egypt?
AS: I haven't been there in a year, since the unrest. I usually go two to three times a year to train and visit family, but this is the first time in 10 years that I'm not going. I'm friendly with [the Egyptian team], and they said that in April [during the mass protests and violence], their phone lines, Internet, any type of communication were all shut down. They had to stay in their homes after 2 p.m. It was very hectic and crazy.
espnW: Egyptians and Egyptian-Americans are being hailed as "the new squash stars." Why?
AS: People start at such a young age -- there are tons of 7- and 8-year-olds at local clubs, hitting balls all day long. Parents, coaches and the government are supportive, funding teams. Egyptians are good at trick shots -- players [there] pretty much train to have a lot of variety and are always attacking, putting the ball in the front (see "Squash 101" for the game's basics). In the U.S., you tend to learn the basics, placing the ball in the back, so you don't have as much variety. For years, the Egyptians have been dominant; with the new generation, fans want to keep the streak alive.
espnW: How competitive are you with your sister? Are you two like Venus and Serena?
AS: We try to be! This is her first year so she doesn't have as much experience as I do, but she's tough. In the summer, I challenge my mom and sister to play me, 2-against-1, in tennis. In a few years she'll be really good -- but not good enough to beat me!