Squashing the Competition



Farag Leads Crimson to Squash National Championship

Farag at Nationals (Courtesy of Peyton Fine)
Farag at Nationals (Courtesy of Peyton Fine)

Let me make something very clear. Ali Farag, Harvard’s number one squash player, is really good. We are talking number one junior player in the world good, reigning collegiate national champion good. In this year’s national championship, Farag swept his opponent while never giving up more than four points in a game. Harvard swept all three of its opponents this weekend in route to the Potter Cup; Harvard’s first collegiate squash team championship since 1998. That’s domination no matter what sport you follow.

Look, I love sports, but covering the national championship was my first exposure to squash. I had to use trusty Wikipedia just to figure out the rules for the tournament. Each team is comprised of nine players ranked one through nine, who face off in a match against the opposing team’s player with the same rank. The matches are best of five games, and the first team to win five matches wins.

After watching the various matches throughout the tournament, I began to understand that the strategy in squash is pretty simple. A player wants to use the walls of the court to place the ball in places that would cause his opponent to be unable to return the ball before it bounces twice. Most players, at least at the collegiate level, attempt to do this by consistently forcing their opponent to return shots from the corners and wearing them down in a match of attrition. This war of attrition is referred to as the “British” style of play.

Harvard’s two through nine ranked players employed the British style to perfection, sweeping Trinity of Connecticut in the first eight out of nine matches in the national championship. Trinity until last year possessed a 252-match unbeaten streak, so this was no small feat. Take senior co-captain Brandon McLaughlin. In his match that clinched the national championship by giving the Crimson its fifth and decisive win, McLaughlin came from a two to one game deficit in a best-of-five match. He stormed back to take the fourth match 11-2. Then, he fended off two match points before ultimately winning the decisive fifth game. His match was a microcosm of the manner in which Harvard won each of its matches throughout the championship weekend — wearing down opponents and consistently winning decisive points at the end of games and matches.

However, Farag’s domination was of a different sort. The way he played was totally different. He employed all different shots with different spins that left his opponent at times utterly hapless and the crowd in awe. I discovered (this time with Google) that Farag’s playing style is called “Egyptian.” This makes sense considering Farag is originally from Cairo and trains with many of the best Egyptian players while home. The Egyptian style of play hinges on a player’s ability to accurately place a ball at the intersection of the court’s walls or floors making the bounce nonexistent or tough to handle. This is easier said than done; one has to angle the shot off the wall just right. If not, one can miss the shot completely or give the opponent a very easy shot.

I should have known to expect something special from Farag on the court. Before the match, the College Squash Association presented him with the Skillman Award for his accomplishments on and off the court. The surprising part was the second half of the award — his accomplishments off the court. I cannot say that I know much about Farag off the court, but I do know that he is pursuing an S.B. in engineering, which entails twenty courses for graduation, and is working on a project to harness solar energy in Egypt. I can tell you that what I saw of Farag’s actions during the national championship revealed him as very deserving of the Skillman Award.

While waiting to begin his own match, Farag was practically another coach for the Harvard players. At each break in a match, Farag was the first to talk to his teammates as they left the court. As the matches were in progress, Farag was the most vocal cheerleader. And, when McLaughlin won the fifth match to give Harvard its championship, Farag bounded to him with such speed that he whacked junior Amanda Sobhy in the face. Sobhy, a junior on the women’s squash team, is the reigning collegiate champion and former junior World champion with Farag.

During the match Farag was the epitome of sportsmanship. After one particular slam early in the match that left his opponent sprawled on the ground, Farag stopped the match to make sure his opponent could continue. After the few points that his opponent was able to win off Farag, he would applaud the quality of the shot his opponent played. As sports fans, we are acutely aware of the mistakes star athletes make. Ali Farag on this day broke that mold.

My first experience with squash in many ways resembled a lot of other sports I’ve watched where the winning team is usually “clutch” as Harvard was in capturing the national title. However, the Egyptian game played by Ali Farag coupled with his actions off the court made this particular weekend one that reminded me of the reasons why I love sports.

Peyton Fine ’17 (peytonfine@college) got to witness glory up close.