Of the six freshmen joining Harvard’s storied squash program this year, three hail from Cairo, Egypt. They are the latest set of top recruits from a country that dominates the international squash scene.
Egypt cruised to the World Squash Federation World Team Championships last year and populates the top of the PSA World Squash Rankings, accounting for the top four men’s and the top three women’s squash players. The Middle Eastern country has been a squash superpower for decades, which junior Saadeldin Abouaish, the only non-freshman Egyptian on the squash team, partially attributes to former president Hosni Mubarak’s love for the game.
“It started in the ‘90s when there was a tournament in the pyramids,” Abouaish said. “We had one good Egyptian player at that time [Ahmed Barada] and he got a lot of publicity because the president was very into squash at that time too.”
Egyptian players are renowned for their exciting, attack-minded style of play. Admirers of creativity and flair are sure to be drawn to the Egyptian technique, which is set to become more prevalent at the college level as more and more Egyptian players make the move over to the United States.
“They are so skilled with the racket and are very offensive players,” freshman Marwan Tarek said. “They maybe aren’t as strong physically as Europeans or South Americans but they have the know-how to win.”
Freshman Hana Moatez said that squash is an expensive sport played mainly by wealthy people in Cairo and, to a lesser extent, Alexandria. But over time, Tarek claimed, it has become significantly more accessible for less well-off Egyptians.
“If you asked me 10 years ago I would have told you that it was only wealthy people playing squash in Egypt but now I think the availability of the sport has increased,” Tarek said. “There are now coaches who take less money. It’s become more for the people who are workhorses rather than just being for the wealthy.”
This accessibility has led to an explosion of participation in squash at the youth levels. And young Egyptian squash players have plenty of role models to look up to, which freshman Amina Yousry believes is a catalyst for her success on the squash court.
“We have many players who went down the same path before we did,” Yousry said. “They succeeded and we’ve grown up having big role models to look up to and follow their paths. Amr Shabana, Ramy Ashour, Karim Darwish to name a few. They are Egyptian squash legends.”
Among the scores of emerging Egyptian squash players are Tarek, Moatez, and Yousry, Harvard’s three standout freshmen. They have known each other for years and all three have played for Egypt in international competitions. Moatez and Yousry have competed against each other since they were nine years old. Abouaish, has also long known the younger Egyptians. He played on the same club team as Tarek in Egypt, and the two have been friends for nine years. But the decision to play squash for the Crimson was not equally easy for all of them.
“Since I was a kid I had my eyes on a few schools in the US since my brother moved here six years ago,” Yousry said. “I didn’t want to ditch academics or squash and I found it hard to do both in Egypt. Here in the US and especially at Harvard it’s way easier to balance between both.”
While Yousry knew for years that she wanted to play college squash in the United States, the decision was much tougher for Tarek and Abouaish.
“I wasn’t thinking of coming to a school in the US. I just wanted to finish my junior tournaments and go pro,” Tarek said. “But then I got an email from the Harvard coaches, Princeton coaches, and Yale coaches about coming to the US. I visited and felt so excited about coming here.”
Abouaish explained that he was extremely hesitant to join the Crimson because he was extremely close to his family and friends. In the end, he said he was convinced to come by Ali Farag ’14, whom he labeled a pioneer of Egyptian squash at Harvard. Two years later, he played a similar role to the one that Farag — currently ranked No. 2 in the world — played for him.
“I think me being close in age to the three freshmen allowed me to advise them and push them to come here,” Abouaish said. “It started with Ali and he kind of led the way.”
The four Crimson Egyptians universally agree that their time with the Crimson has been made much more enjoyable by the fact that there are other Egyptians around to support them and talk to them. Abouaish, the lone upperclassman, has been making Tarek feel at home and enjoys having someone to speak Arabic with. And the pair of freshmen women has the added benefit of entering college together.
“I’ve never been part of a team before so being here with international people and having one of my best friends [Moatez] along with me on the team is the best thing I have here,” Yousry said. “This is actually what’s keeping me going.”
There is no reason to believe that the pipeline from Egypt to Harvard’s squash team will close anytime soon. Given Egypt’s squash dominance and the Crimson’s recent success on the court — the women have won four straight Howe Cups and are on a 53 match winning streak, while the men have finished as national runner-ups to Trinity College twice in a row — it seems to be a connection that should endure going forward.
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