W. Squash Captain Downs Nation's Best

“You know what, I’ve been having a little trouble seeing the board.”

—“What line can you see on this chart?”

“Nothing.”

—“By your having trouble seeing the board, well, can you see a board?”

This exchange took place last week, when Louisa Hall, the junior co-captain and No. 1 player on Harvard women’s squash, finally went to see an eye doctor.

—“How long have you been in school?”

“Three years.”

—“So you’re basically telling me that you just don’t look at the board in school.”

Hall now wears contact lenses on the court and sports plastic tortoise shell glasses off of it. Turns out that she plays more by hearing than by seeing.

“The other day I had a walkman, and I was hitting with it on,” Hall said. “I just kept missing the ball.”

Truth is truly stranger than fiction because before she even saw her doctor, Hall won the Harvard Club of New York Invitational on Jan. 22 by defeating the legendary Khan sisters, the top two women in the nation. The tournament was the first of six qualifications for the U.S. national team traveling to the Pan American games, held this summer in the Dominican Republic. What’s more, Hall had never beaten these players before.

“In the past it’s been that I’d definitively lose to the Khan sisters,” Hall said. “This year I’d really like to beat the Khan sisters consistently.”

Latasha and Shabana Khan are the highest ranked U.S. women in the world at Nos. 24 and 30, respectively.

One Down, Five to Go

Facing Shabana in the opening round, Hall claimed a gritty 9-6 first game before swiftly taking the second 9-2. Shabana, 34, who defeated the 20-year-old Hall last June at the Team Trials for the World Championship squad, retired after being down five points in the third game.

Hall then dispatched of Yale’s No. 1, freshman Michelle Quibell, in a 9-0, 9-5, 9-1 semifinal rout.

In the final against the 30-year-old Latasha, it seemed at first that Hall would succumb to her own demons.

“In the past, I’ve been really bad about getting intimidated if I had lost to someone before,” Hall said. “I had a lot of trouble going in there really wanting to win because I felt that I was already in a hole.”

Quickly down two games, Hall rallied with an impressive 9-1 win in the third game and then forced the match to its limit by taking the fourth, 9-5. But then she faltered and found herself losing 6-2 in the deciding frame. Hall stormed back to tie the score and fended off a match ball at 8-6 and then closed out the victory 10-8.

“This year I feel like it’s been really different, because it doesn’t really matter whether I’m better or worse [than my opponent],” Hall said. “I just love to play squash and just go out there and have fun.”

The victory is the first in a long journey to the national team, but Hall is up for the challenge. After all, she’s done it before.

Milking It

Currently hovering around No. 6 in the nation, Hall made the U.S. team three consecutive years starting her junior year in high school. She entered college as the No. 1 junior and owner of eight consecutive USSRA Junior titles. Her proudest moment was at the World Championships when she was just 16. She came back from two games down to beat her German opponent in the fifth-place match.

Hall was competing in international tournaments by the age of 15, was sponsored by Prince and Oakley in high school and starred in her very own Got Milk? ad that ran in ESPN Magazine and Sports Illustrated.

She’s also a two-time All-American, the defending Ivy League Player of the Year, the 2001 Ivy League Rookie of the Year and a former field hockey recruit.

Hall has now placed herself in prime position to reclaim a spot on the national team by winning the Harvard Club tournament, in which all four members of the 2002 U.S. Team competed.

The burden of balancing school and squash—intercollegiate and beyond— increased even more this year with her election as co-captain. But Hall is determined not to let her game slide any more, after her ranking slipped two spots since starting college and a poor showing at nationals last year.

“I can’t play as many tournaments, and it’s also been harder to train in college,” Hall said. “In high school, I had a coach, the U.S. junior coach, who was always around to help me one-on-one. Now in college, you also have to balance your needs with the needs of the team.”

Last summer Hall went home and trained like never before. She played more matches against the men in her area, which helped her improve her footwork and aggressiveness, and worked on coaching herself.

“I learned how to do things on my own a little bit more than I had in the past,” Hall said. “I gained a sort of independence that I didn’t have before. Now, even when I’m practicing with the team, I can also think about individual needs.”

In preseason, Harvard coach Satinder Bajwa commented on Hall’s improved quickness.

“She’s probably twice as fast, and her movement around the court is excellent,” Bajwa said. “Her crispness on the ball is better. She’s been working.”

But Hall wasn’t always so light on her feet, and her journey to squash prominence didn’t start out quite the way she imagined her athletic career would go.

Sister Sister

“First I wanted to be a ballerina, but I was way too fat,” Hall said. “They were literally like, ‘This is not the sport for you, honey.’”

Unfazed, Hall’s next goal was worldclass swimming, but that stalled at an early age, too.

“I couldn’t get myself to dive off the little blocks,” Hall said. “I would just jump off the side and everyone else would dive, so I just sucked at that.”

But then, one of the most powerful forces in competition introduced her to squash: sibling rivalry.

“My sister [Colby ’02] picked up squash, and she started playing tournaments,” Hall explained. “And because it’s squash and no one plays squash when you’re eight and you’re playing in under-9 tournaments, obviously you’re going to do well. So she started doing really well and bringing home all these trophies, and my parents were giving her all this attention. So it really all comes from jealousy.”

Hall went to her first tournament and didn’t win a single point. She went to her father crying and told him she was going to quit.

“My dad just said, ‘When you fall off the horse, you get back on,’” Hall said. “Also at the time, I was playing with this little plastic junior racket. So I was like, ‘It’s the plastic.’ And my dad bought me a transition racket for in between junior rackets and normal rackets, and I thought I was a superstar.”

Hall pulled out a win at her next tournament and the superstar career had truly begun. She would eventually follow her sister to Harvard, where Colby was the co-captain with Margaret Elias ’02.

Hall had a history with Elias as well, since they were fierce rivals in junior squash.

“We would have these marathon matches, and she had the worst temper,” Hall said of Elias. “At one point she threw her racket, and if I hadn’t ducked, it would have hit me in the head. The USSRA made her write me an official apology note.”

Hall confesses to having a bit of a temper herself; she actually has permanent vein damage in her right leg from hitting herself with her racket during matches.

“When you show your anger, [your opponents] know they have an advantage,” Hall said. “So you can choke up on your racket and [hit yourself] subtly, and it kills. So it gets out your aggression while also not letting [your opponent] get any satisfaction.”

Armed with this competitive streak, Hall now guides an extraordinarily young Crimson squad with co-captain Ella Witcher. The two are the oldest on the team, which features ten freshmen and sophomores.

“She has such leadership on the court,” Witcher said. “She’s a great player, but she takes the time to always help everyone and give them suggestions.”

Eye of the Tiger

As she matures in her mental game, Hall has disposed of an astonishing number of superstitions that ranged from having to be the first person on the court to not allowing the ball to roll over a red line during warm-ups. But still, she admits to a fixation with squash outfits.

“Once I’ve lost in things twice consecutively, I can’t wear them again in a tournament match,” Hall said. “I have OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] when it comes to matching. My sports bra has to match my spandex which has to match my bandanna.”

Such efforts do not go unnoticed.

“She’s definitely known for her great fashion sense on the court,” Witcher added.

All of her quirks aside, Hall’s future looks bright. An English major and lover of writing, she plans to attend graduate school eventually. For now, she’s leaning towards playing professional squash for a few years out of college, with an eye towards finally competing in Asia.

“[Squash] gave me so many great opportunities to travel, and that’s one of the things I’m most grateful for,” Hall said. “All kinds of junior worlds are in Egypt and Malaysia, but for some reason, my [competitions] are always in England.”

Her desire to travel ties into an awareness of the stigma attached to squash as an exclusive sport in the U.S.

“The squash clubs in this country are elite sort of cricket clubs, but in other countries, the basketball courts are next to the squash courts—it’s just a normal sport that everyone plays,” Hall said.

“That’s why other countries are so much better than America because they actually have athletic people coming and trying and working hard while here it’s rich old men playing or rich old men’s kids who want to go to good colleges playing,” Hall added. “So if America wants to compete with the world, it’s going to have to change that about squash.”

The U.S. can bank on having Hall on its side for years to come. And now equipped with contact lenses, there’s no limit in sight on just how far she’ll go.

—Staff writer Brenda E. Lee can be reached at belee@fas.harvard.edu.