When the Egyptian populace decided to revolt in early 2011, they knew their actions would bring about major changes in their country’s sociopolitical system. What they didn’t know is that nearly 1,400 miles away and 11 months in the future, their movement would spur a much smaller revolution—one in the sport of collegiate squash.
Such was the case because the events in his home country had spurred Ali Farag—the No. 1 junior player in the world and the No. 79 player overall—to emigrate to the United States in the fall of 2011.
After taking his SAT in May, Farag found out a month later that he had been accepted to Harvard as a transfer student from American University in Cairo, and just like that the Crimson men’s squash team had a new star.
“I was screaming on the phone, and my parents were crying,” Farag recalled about learning he had been accepted.
Beginning his collegiate squash career as a sophomore, Farag quickly made clear that he was no ordinary rookie. After sitting out the start of the season as the NCAA reviewed his eligibility, Farag swept Penn’s Thomas Mattsson in his first collegiate match. In his second, he downed the reigning CSA Individual Champion and the then-top-ranked player in the nation, Princeton’s Todd Harrity, in a five-game thriller. The sophomore was the first collegiate player to beat Harrity in two years.
“It was a really tough battle,” Farag said after the match. “My plan didn’t work [at first], so I had to find another plan to play, and fortunately it worked.”
Farag kept rolling from there, finishing an undefeated 16-0 in the regular season, and he entered the 32-player CSA national championship bracket as the top seed. Farag defeated Adam Perkiomaki of Rochester and teammate Brandon McLaughlin with ease in the first two rounds. Sweeps of a pair of Trinity players—Antonio Diaz in the quarters and three-time All-American Vikram Malhotra in the semis—put the Egyptian in the finals.
There, at the Alumni Gymnasium in Amherst, Mass., Farag was matched up with the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Columbia freshman Ramit Tandon, who had swept Harrity in the semis. Farag had not faced Tandon during the regular season but they had met before—most notably in the Junior British Open, which Farag won in January 2011.
Now playing for a collegiate national title, Tandon was looking to get retribution against the sophomore already considered the best junior player in the world.
The first game was tight, tied at three, four, nine, and 10 before Farag clinched a 12-10 win with a backhanded cross-court shot. Down 4-1 in the second, the sophomore fought back to pull out an 11-8 victory. And in the third game, Farag was as dominant as he had been all season, winning 11-4 to complete the sweep and earn Harvard its 34th CSA Individual National Championship and the Pool Trophy.
“[Farag] is a very exciting player with a beautiful touch and a lot of deception,” Harvard coach Mike Way said after the match. “His opponent plays a similar style…. It was beautiful squash, and hats off to both players. It was the most exciting finals that has ever been played.”
Farag, who had won a number of individual tournaments in the past, considered this championship even more special because he had triumphed while representing his new school.
“[Winning this title] was a bit different because I was playing for Harvard, not just for myself,” Farag said after the match. “Colin West [’10] won two years ago, and I wanted to get it back to Harvard this year.”
That Farag did, joining fellow rookie Amanda Sobhy as individual national champions in Cambridge.
“I think that they are probably the two strongest players ever to play in college squash,” Way said of his two national champions. “Some might disagree on the male side, because there have been some other very strong players. But there’s never been a male player as dominant and exciting as Ali.”