Thursday, June 13, 2024

Inside US Squash: Early season rise of the elite and outdoor courts

Marina Stefanoni, the Specter Center, Sobhy sisters and Maspeth Squash are just some of the look ins this month

In a first of a monthly series, Sean Choi, of the Rally Report Podcast, looks at state of play in the US across players, competitions and clubs 

US Pro Scene: Off-season activity

Countdown to the season is fast approaching, and the off-season preparation has been nothing short of hard work for Team USA. As the squash scene continues to grow in the US, it is fascinating to see professionals’ decisions on how to best prepare during this period.

So, what have they been up to?

Down at the Kinetic Camp, America’s most successful player, ranked sixth in the world, Amanda Sobhy, has continued her partnership with Wael El Hindi that began in 2022. However, this summer she is joined by her sister, Sabrina, as she looks to break into the top 10 and prepare to challenge the Gillis sisters as the top-ranked sister-duo on the tour.

The Kinetic Camp is turning into quite the hub for many professional players around the world – with players like Rowan El Araby, Jasmine Hutton, Tom Walsh, Miguel Rodriguez, and many others seemingly joining in on the summer hard work. On top of the heat conditions in Florida, having top-ranked training partners under the guidance of Wael El Hindi may be the recipe for success for the Sobhy sisters this upcoming season.

Olivia Fiechter in action

Olivia Fiechter has been quietly keeping herself busy this summer, with her base being at the Ox Ridge Squash Club led by Rodney Martin. It’s no secret that many of the tour’s top players have sought guidance from Rod, as seen with his infamous partnerships with Nouran Gohar and Marwan El Shorbagy.

Similarly, to the Kinetic Camp, many of the tour’s top pros have also seemed to have made the decision to train at Ox Ridge this summer, featuring the likes of Joel Makin, Eain Yow Ng, Dimitri Steinmann, Abdulla Al-Tamimi, and Nicole Bunyan on their social media accounts.

Fiechter made a statement in the past two seasons, establishing herself in the top 10. There’s no doubt that she made the conscious decision to spend her summer with Rod to elevate her game and push further into the top 10.

The investment of the US National Center, coached by Ong Beng Hee, seems to have flourished this summer, with the rest of Team USA basing their homes near the Arlen Specter Center.

Having the veteran presence of Todd Harrity and Olivia Clyne on top of the ambitious youth of Shahjahan Khan, Timmy Brownell, Spencer Lovejoy, and Andrew Douglas has created quite a culture of dedication.

With the consistency of a home base, many of the players from Specter Center enjoyed career highlights last season. Notable achievements consist of Timmy Brownell breaking into the top 50, Spencer Lovejoy winning the Tortola Classic, Olivia Clyne’s five consecutive semifinal performances, and Andrew Douglas winning his maiden National Championship. Team USA hopes to build on this momentum from last year and make even more noise in the upcoming season!

“We’ve put in a lot of hard work this off season at the Specter Center,” Lovejoy says. “I think its been one of the best off-seasons I’ve had personally as a pro player thanks to the great support system we have here in the US Squash, our head coach Ong Ben Hee, S+C coach, Brigita Roemer, and team doctor, Dr. Aiden Kaye. Thanks to them we’re ready to let the work pay off this season on tour.”

Stefanoni finds season-opening success

While the excitement of the calendar’s first platinum event in Paris is palpable, the season has already begun for a couple of the US pro players in the month of August.

Notable performances this month came from Marina Stefanoni and Andrew Douglas in Canada at the Windsor Cup (Bronze 52k) and Windsor City Open (Challenger 9k).

The reigning US National Champion, Andrew Douglas, continued to carry his end-of-season momentum with two consecutive upsets, defeating Leandro Romiglio from Argentina and Leonel Cardenas, who is ranked 28th in the world. Douglas eventually fell to the 2nd seed, Youssef Soliman, in the quarter-finals. Nonetheless, he showcased his caliber in a bronze-level tournament.

Entering her Senior Year at Harvard, Stefanoni inaugurated her 2023-24 season with a victory at the Windsor City Open. She secured wins over fellow compatriots Avery Park and the reigning US Junior Champion, Caroline Fouts, in the semi-finals.

In the final, Marina was pushed to four games by the 4th seed, Nour Heikal, but gained control after dropping the first game. As Marina completes her final year at Harvard, she emerges as a player to watch this season while gradually transitioning to a full-time professional.

Community Corner 

We will take a regular look at new clubs, those emerging as well as ones already growing.

Maspeth Squash has been at the forefront of the outdoor squash movement’s growth in the US. Situated in Queens, NYC, this court offers the unique beauty of an open-air, outdoor, and ‘true’ steel-wall experience that might not be commonly associated with the squash community.

This year has proved to be yet another success, increasing its exposure and the potential impact it can have on communities across the US as they strive to expand their reach. Many touring professionals eagerly explore the venue, participating in friendly exhibition matches and proper challenger tournaments that are hosted quite regularly.

Chris Walker and Lyell Fuller in action on the Maspeth steel court

While squash in the US has traditionally been seen as a ‘winter’ season sport due to its indoor-dominant facilities, Maspeth’s outdoor initiative exposes the community to the sport’s charm beneath the open skies. From the resounding echoes of balls against the steel wall to the warmth radiating from the sun and the vibrant sounds of Queens, the outdoor experience is undeniably unique.

Led by Robert Gibraltar, the director of Maspeth Welding Arts, the project ambitiously aims to bring positive changes across various programs and squash communities. Robert warmly welcomes community members to immerse themselves in the outdoor experience beyond the courts.

Quite often, you can find Robert engrossed in side art projects, experimenting with different objects and materials. The facility exudes Robert’s artistic background, blending art and squash seamlessly. From a mural of Nouran Gohar to metallic art pieces, the facility could very well be considered an outdoor museum.

Gather your friends, families, and fellow squash players and let this experience alleviate the summer heat. Maspeth aspires to replicate this unique experience beyond the confines of Queens.

Sean Choi is host of the Rally Report Podcast

Follow updates on @therallyreport on Instagram. The podcast can be found on Youtube, Apple Podcast, Spotify and Anchor

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