Tuesday, November 28, 2023

US Junior Open: At last, great squash and sportsmanship rises to the surface

All sins forgiven as juniors finally turn on the style at Yale University

RICHARD MILLMAN reports from the Black Knight US Junior Open presented by Ashaway Strings

After my disappointment at behaviour and simulation from junior players yesterday, I arrived at the Brady Squash Centre at Yale with more than a little feeling of trepidation.

Within an hour, not only had those feelings evaporated but they were replaced with elation. The reason? Two young men who gave me every reason to be filled with hope for an exciting future to our sport.

In the consolation of the Boys U15 event Alvaro Buenaro of Ecuador and Aly Abou El Einem of Egypt produced a spectacle of control, athleticism, bald faced courage, deception and sportsmanship.

It was a fiercely and fairly contested match where the much smaller Ibrahim showed a skill and mastery that was quite extraordinary in one so young. The more powerful Buenaro was himself endowed with magnificent racket control although he tended toward more power.

The balance of the match ebbed and flowed and as so often the strategy and mental toughness of the two players determined the outcome rather than their extraordinarily well matched skills.Jr.-OpenBlackKnight

Alvaro  took the third game with an outrageous backhand cross court nick from the back third of the court, chopped in with such ferocity and yet such precision that both myself and Aly’s coach Nadeem Osman both involuntarily sucked in a breath, as we realised that we would be hard pressed to see such a shot in PSA.

In the end Aly let Alvaro’s raw power and athleticism suck him into the bigger boy’s game plan and he was unable to use his superior feel and touch, letting the pace of the game get away from him.

The last points were played at the highest velocity and intensity and in other matches in this tournament; I have seen emotions get the better of the players in such circumstances.

In this match, however, as the match concluded, the players shook hands and, after they had come off the court and been congratulated by their respective coaching teams, for no-one had any reason other than to be proud of this game, Alvaro came back over to Aly in a touching acknowledgement of a worthy opponent.

The last match of the morning was a real treat and if you have not already taken notice of the young Peruvian Diego Elias, you should do so now. 

He offered and had returned a fist bump, as the clearly deflated Aly manfully and sportingly conceded his opponent’s superiority, at least for today.

The next game I watched was a real matter of power versus grace. In the Girls U15 Nour Elhendawi from Egypt hit the ball as ruthlessly as any woman I have ever seen. Her opponent from Japan, Salomi Watanabe, tall, graceful and dripping with deception, seemed too delicate to cope with the brutality that her Egyptian opponent offered.

However, grace overcame power as Watanabe redirected her competitors force and, in a well contested match, that with both players screams of self-encouragement had overtones of women’s tennis, Watanabe emerged victorious by three games to love.

A bit of an upset followed this match when Azam Khan’s beautifully balanced and equitable son Salim, from Seattle, fell to fellow American Sam Scherl from New Jersey in four hard games. Another sportsmanlike game from these two – there were no shenanigans.

I personally felt that Salim got caught out by the unusually bouncy courts here at Yale, which will often wrong foot a player who has learned on a court that is deader.

Salim’s boasts and cross courts sat up and gave Sam Scherl many counter attacking opportunities which he capitalised on with great depth and tight straight drops which, on the glass side walls, gave Salim considerably difficulty.

The cross courts from both of these players opened up the court and gave the opponent more opportunities than the straight game would have. Sam simply did a better job of taking them.

In summary, this event has been a triumph for US Squash’s organisation, who managed against considerable odds to produce a world class competition.

The last match of the morning was a real treat and if you have not already taken notice of the young Peruvian Diego Elias, you should do so now. He was matched in the first semi-final of the U19 Boys against the talented Egyptian Karim Tarek.

Diego is the picture of calm, seemingly unhurried under pressure, he builds his rallies studiously. I overheard Thierry Lincou (pictured below in white) talking with Diego’s father through an interpreter after this match saying that he noticed how mature Diego’s shot selection was already, at such a young age.

Karim, while a talented racket master, never looked settled and appeared edgy throughout, trying to force the points, which of course suited the Peruvian who used his opponents excessive pace against him.

Look out for this young man, he looks like he will stay the course. By the way, in the entire match, I think the only words he spoke were ‘Let, please.’

Unfortunately the snow has returned to New Haven and so I will have to leave early and won’t get to see the finals. But once again you can see the results by clicking here.

In summary, this event has been a triumph for US Squash’s organisation, who managed against considerable odds to produce a world class competition.

The behaviour of some of the players and their supporters have been disturbing and despite best attempts (referee Wayne Smith was forced to award a conduct game for the first time in years when a 12-year-old Egyptian slammed his racket on the floor so hard that it bounced dangerously out of the court) from the refereeing staff, there were simply not enough skilled referees and not enough refereeing experience to cope with the histrionics here.

We need a worldwide campaign, every bit as strong as Squash2020 was, to get everyone on the same page and stamp out the desperate behaviour that is dragging our sport into the mire.

Only if everyone works together and the WSF, PSA, WSA and NGBs show true leadership can we bring the game back to the true ideals of sport for sports sake and not win at all costs.

The first and crucial move should be to ban all on-court discussion and questioning, which interferes with the continuity of the game.

The most basic principle of the game after all, as stated in the rules, is that the game shall be continuous.

No talking, no fishing, just squash. What came through on finals day however, was a sense of the rapidly evolving skills in the game of squash and the totally international complexion of the talent that was on show and is going to be the future of the game.

With Peru, Japan, USA, Mexico and Germany in addition to Egypt, England, Pakistan, South Africa and France all featuring in the latter stages – we certainly have an international kaleidescope of future champions to look forward to.

Many thanks to Black Knight and presenting sponsors Ashaway Strings, to the hard working tournament officials, the coaches, the players of course, the supporters, Yale University, Choate Rosemary Hall, Wesleyan University, Hopkins School and to US Squash for continuing to lead the way with this pioneering event.

Pictures by Richard Millman

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  1. Why backtrack and ‘forgive all sins’?

    The player-conduct and parent-interference issues are troubling and should be allowed to resonate.

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