Is US College Squash good for the PSA World Tour?

Yasser El Halaby
Yasser El Halaby

Now that the opinions from social media are in – let’s take a look at Mazen Hesham’s twitter debate from a week ago.  We’ve seen several good and well written opinions, especially from Mazen and Victor Crouin.

Mazen specifically wanted to debate the relationship between players attending US Colleges / Universities and The PSA World Tour – not if US College squash has a positive or negative impact on squash as a whole – which most would agree it does have a positive impact.

His thinking is that US Colleges attract and even ‘head-hunt’ top junior squash players to enrol on their university courses, taking them away from fully committing to the PSA World Tour at 18.

For this debate we’ll only examine the effects on non-US players – people who have chosen to move to America in-order to attend college / university (sorry to Amanda and Sabrina Sobhy, Olivia Fiechter and Todd Harrity – you’ll have to sit this one out!).

Here’s a look at just some top junior squash players who have chosen to attend US Colleges over the last 15 years: The list shows (in no particular order) their main credentials before moving to The States:

Victor Crouin  (2 x European Jr Champion),

Ashley Davies  (England U19 No.1;  British Jr Open (BJO) U17 Runner-Up),

Mohamed El-Gawarhy  (5th place at World Jr Championships),

Marwan Tarek  (1 x World Jr Champion (beating Victor Crouin in the final) and 1 x Runner-Up),

Ryosei Kobayashi  (Japanese U19 No.1),

Amr Khaled Khalifa  (BJO U15 Champion;  World Jr Champion – beating Ali Farag in the final!),

Osama Khalifa  (at age 17 won PSA Event in Australia, beating Paul Coll along the way!),Ali Farag  (World Jr Finalist),

Rishi Tandon  (Indian U19 No.2),

Yasser El Halaby  (U17 BJO Champion),

Saadeldin Abouaish  (World Jr Runner-Up),Omar El Atmas  (World Jr Runner-Up).

Georgina Kennedy  (European Jr Champion;  4 x British Jr Champion),

Sivasangari Subramaniam  (U19 BJO Champion),

Millie Tomlinson  (4 x British Jr Champion),

Lucy Beecroft  (European U17 No.1;  4 x British Jr Champion;  England U19 No.1),

Kanzy El Defrawy  (2 x BJO Runner-Up;  5 x Dutch Jr Open Champion;  4 x Pioneer Jr Open Champion),

Anaka Alankamony  (Asian Jr Champion;  Youngest PSA World Tour Winner at 15 years old),

Kimberley Hay  (British U19 No.1;  3 x British Jr Champion).

And what they went on to achieve as a professional player on the PSA World Tour….

Victor Crouin – He’s already reached World Ranking (WR) 39 and is showing himself very likely to achieve a lot more.  He’s 21 years old now.

Ashley Davies – WR98 was his highest but no longer plays the World Tour.  He’s 26.

Mohamed El-Gawarhy – Highest WR108.  No longer plays PSA.  Age 25.

Marwan Tarek – WR156.  Age 21.

Ryosei Kobayashi – Is currently at his highest ranking of WR72.  Age 26.

Amr Khaled Khalifa – Reached WR50.  Doesn’t play PSA any longer.  Age 28.

Osama Khalifa – WR257.  No longer plays PSA.  Age 25.

Ali Farag – World No.1 – among many, many, many other achievements….  Still going strong.  Age 28.

Rishi Tandon – Never joined PSA.  Age 26.
Yasser El Halaby – Reached WR68 at age 17.  Stopped PSA for 3 years then reached WR40, then retired from the PSA at age 25.  Age now 36.

Saadeldin Abouaish – Highest WR188.  No longer plays PSA.  Age 22.

Omar El Atmas – Doesn’t play PSA.  Age 24.

Georgina Kennedy – Just starting her PSA career.  Looks very promising – got to the final of the event in Manchester last week.  Age 23.

Sivasangari Subramaniam – Highest WR32.  Age 22.

Millie Tomlinson – Highest WR 20.  Age 28.

Lucy Beecroft – Highest WR98.  Age 24.

Kanzy El Defrawy – WR29.  No longer plays PSA.  Age 26.

Anaka Alankamony – WR59.  No longer plays PSA.  Age 26.

Kimberley Hay – WR118.  No longer plays PSA.  Age 29.

This makes an interesting read. Out of 19 selected players (all but one currently under the age of 30) from a pool a of potential superstars given their junior achievements – only 7 have achieved a World Top 50 ranking – and only 7 or 8 are currently still playing the PSA World Tour (Victor Crouin, Marwan Tarek, Ryosei Kobayashi, Ali Farag, Georgina Kennedy, Sivasangari Subramaniam, Millie Tomlinson and Lucy Beecroft).

Given that all these players were ranked within the top 5 juniors in the World when they moved to America, there’s only a 37% success rate of players going on to achieve a top 50 world ranking.

Here’s something very interesting – going back to 2008 when Mohamed ElShorbagy won the first of his two World Junior Championships (I won’t go further back than that because (apart from Yasser El Halaby) we’re looking at players currently 30 years of age or younger), the ONLY male World Junior Championship finalists NOT to achieve a World Top 50 ranking are players who went to a US University!  The underachieving culprits are:  Amr Khaled Khalifa (2010 Winner), Omar El Atmas (2014 RU), Saadeldin Abouaish (2016 RU) and Marwan Tarek (2017 Winner and 2018 RU).

All girls who appeared in a World Junior Championship final in this same period went on to achieve at least a top 20 ranking – none of these finalists went to an American University – apart from one, Amanda Sobhy, who we all know is American.

Is it possible that the above data isn’t as conclusive as it appears to be?

Being a top junior isn’t a guaranteed pathway to senior success, irrelevant of going to university or not.  Looking back to my junior days, and thinking about my junior rivals, which fyi. was an unparalleled golden age for transitioning from top junior to top senior in England (eg. Nick Matthew, Adrian Grant, Jon Kemp, James Willstrop, Phillip & Peter Barker, Daryl Selby, Chris Ryder and Ben Garner, who all reached an exceptionally high level) – but just as many of my highly ranked rivals from the U16 and U19’s, and potential PSA World Tour pros, faded away into squash obscurity.  This happens all the time and in every country.  I looked back at the England U19 Top 10 Rankings from 4 years ago and the vast majority of those names would be unrecognizable to most squash fans.  It can be a very difficult transition from junior to senior squash and also, not everyone wants to become a professional squash player after a successful junior career.  However, domestic junior achievements are one thing, but impressive performances at the World Junior Open are definitely a more guaranteed indicator of future success.

One person in the above list is of real interest to me – Yasser El Halaby.  He was an exceptional player as a junior and his PSA rankings show that – 68 in the world at age 17, and then after a 3-year break from the PSA World Tour, he reached the top 40, before retiring at the ripe old age of 25!  My question is this – is this a squash success story or not?  No doubt he achieved a very high standard and most people reading this would be delighted to be among the top 40 players in the world – but if he was top 70 at the age of 17 what could he have gone on to achieve?  In squash circles, what he’s most remembered for is winning an unprecedented 4 individual US College Championship titles – but most squash enthusiasts outside of America have never heard of him.  Could he have been a world top 5 squash player if he continued with the sport professionally?  Did he ever want to be a top 5 squash player??  Only he knows the answer to that.

Yasser has gone on to be an investment banker in New York and is now back home in Egypt working for a big finance company.  No one could argue he’s lived a pretty successful life so far to say the least; and will have more money than if he continued playing squash and could not climb higher in the rankings than number 40 – but, what if……..?  What if he could have been an Ali Farag or a Mustafa Asal?  Did his success in the US domestic squash scene turn him into a ‘comfort zone’ squash player?

Let’s look at some pros of the US College system for world class junior squash players:

An opportunity to achieve a degree from a world renown university – for free on a scholarship!Access to superb facilities and sport science.Access to world famous squash coaches – John White, David Palmer and Thierry Lincou (all ex-World No.1’s).Similar standard training partners at your university.There are many PSA tournaments in America.Short term financial security – free accommodation. Developing your squash without the pressures of coaching and club fees.Long term financial security – attaining a degree from a prestigious university and hopefully guaranteeing a well-paid job.

Pros examined:
From my ‘Secrets of Egyptian Squash’ blog last week – we now know that Egypt offers the perfect training environment because they only have two ‘squash hubs’ – Cairo and Alexandria, so you are guaranteed to be surrounded by world class training partners.  The States cannot offer this.  The spread of players is so vast, world class training partners are scarce, as are the coaches.  This is possibly the biggest factor to progress from a world class junior to a world class senior player.  The top-level players at US Colleges are either very young and in the infancy of their senior squash career, or coaches who are retired ex-professionals with their squash playing careers well behind them.  There is nobody to learn from who is currently going through the demands of playing and competing at the very highest level.  This is another major aspect Egypt does have.  Top juniors will regularly see players like Ali Farag, Karim Gawad, Tarek Momen, Nour El Sherbini and Nouran Gohar, and learn from them.  They will see the adaptations they make from the ever-changing world of elite squash.

Yes, you will probably come away with a top-notch degree, but that can also happen from British or Egyptian university for example.  However, Harvard and Yale are incredibly prestigious institutions, only matched by Oxford and Cambridge Universities outside of The US. Harvard are currently the top team in both the men’s and women’s college standings – so surely this could be a good option if considering the move.  A question though – imagine this scenario:  If you were to qualify with a good degree from one of the top US Colleges 4 years after reaching the World Junior Championship final.  You then play the PSA World Tour for 12 years, from the age of 22 to 34.  You’re successful and achieve a World Top 20 ranking for 8 of those 12 years and then decide it’s time to leave professional squash behind.  You’ve likely achieved what most expected of you, the 3 or 4 years of study didn’t seem to hold back your ranking potential.  You decide to look for a job using your college degree, and expect a decent job – now this is the question I have – is the degree you earned 12 years ago still relevant?  Will it help you over candidates of a similar age who have 12 years’ experience in that particular field of work?

I honestly don’t know the answer.  I fear the appeal of a 12-year-old degree will have diminished in the eyes of potential employers.  Business changes quickly.  Job descriptions and titles change quickly.  Many jobs today weren’t even invented 15 years ago.  In the eyes of employers, degrees are considerably less important now than they were 20 years ago.  Today, employers actually look favourably upon self-employed ventures, and particularly successful sportsmen because of the dedication, effort, organisation and time-keeping aspects required in-order to succeed.  Ex-World No.20, Chris Simpson is an example of this – he is now a financial planner for Mazars.

So, if an impressive but outdated degree is less of a guarantee to a well-paid job then maybe the individual should have turned professional at 18?  Mazen Hesham wrote that 17 – 22 are “formidable” ages for an athlete, so to miss out on those years is a big risk for anyone wanting to become World No.1 on the PSA World Tour.  Ali Farag is the obvious exception, as he’s done exactly that.  And on the subject of Ali, he will have earned enough money after his playing career is over, he will not need to use his US College degree to get a ‘normal job’ in-order to pay the bills.  If anything, given his obvious squashing ability, we could argue he’s actually missed out on 3 years of earning healthy bucks on the PSA World Tour.

The short-term financial factor would of course be a massive draw.  To become a professional squash player at 17 or 18 is tough financially, but at least you are at an age where you still live with your parents and you’re not looking to start a family.  This offers security when starting your squash career.  Houses and children obviously add a lot of pressure and cost to a person.  By the age of 25 it’s possible there could be a ‘significant other’ on the scene, which can add the feeling of pressure to earn more money, and it would be nice to be well established in your career by then instead of still being in the ‘starting out’ phase where there is less money coming in, which you would still be in if you committed to full-time squash after university.

Victor Crouin seems to be coming out of his three years in America with a promising future in squash.  The last 12 months has seen him climb the rankings quite rapidly.  He questions how ready people are to start out on a squash career at 18, when very few people in the western world would have a full-time job at that age.  He feels his education gave him a critical approach which in-turn improved his shot selection in matches.  He says he has matured quickly as a squash player and is almost wise beyond his years when he’s on court.  His quality of squash certainly confirms this.  He believes specialization at such a young age is not necessarily a good thing.

I agree with Victor that University can be a good path to take, and University gives you excellent life skills.  The maturity needed to study and to live away from home – to learn new skills like scheduling, budgeting, cooking and cleaning – and let’s not forget about enjoying yourself.  Enjoying life is key if you are to thrive, as opposed to just survive!

It would be quite demoralising to see your junior rivals getting a head start over you, in terms of rankings and experience.  It is definitely possible to be a professional squash player on the PSA World Tour and study at a university at the same time.  With a carefully managed schedule and selecting your tournaments wisely, it can, and has been done.  This way you can feel the security of earning a degree while not missing out on time to climb the world rankings.

FYI. I went to Sheffield University.  Daryl Selby and Chris Ryder went to Loughborough Uni.  Joey Barrington went to Birmingham Uni.  Phil Barker went to Cardiff Uni.  All achieved at least a top 40 World ranking.

Many of the Egyptian players have also attended University.  I remember playing the World University Championships in Linz when I was 20.  Our GB team consisted of Ben Garner, myself and Phil Barker – this was pretty good for university squash.  We were all ranked between 50 – 100 in The World at the time.  The Egyptian Team of Karim Darwish, Mohammed Abbas and Wael El Hindi were all ranked inside the World top 30!  6 years later Ramy Ashour, Tarek Momen, Omar Mosaad and Raneem El Welily all played the World University Championships.

As I said, I think Victor’s points are totally valid, but they are not specific to a US College.  The life lessons he learned which has directly contributed to his squash maturity could be learned at almost any university in any country.  The advantages of a US University are based around the sport facilities on offer, the training and the competitive college squash league set up – but Victor’s main positives could have been achieved at another top University outside of the US.  There are certain countries considerably more beneficial to live in if you are going to forge a successful career in squash, and America is definitely one of them, along with Egypt, England, France, Germany, and now Gaultier has created a nice niche in the Czech Republic.  Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Spain, Germany and Holland are also worth a mention.

In conclusion to my all my research on this topic, I most definitely found myself leaning toward Mazen Hesham’s way of thinking and it wasn’t anything I had ever considered before.  I only ever saw the US scholarship system as a good thing because it attracts top players and top coaches to America.  It gives good squash players the chance to obtain a degree from a world class university with minimal cost – costs which would add up to thousands and thousands of dollars for a ‘normal’ person – and let’s not forget, giving the player a chance to train and improve their squash alongside some of the best coaches and facilities in the world.

However, the figures at the start of this blog do not lie – the only “un-achieving” World Junior Open finalists went on to study in the states.  Yet, our current world number 1, Ali Farag is a Harvard graduate!!!!

Mohamed ElShorbagy tweeted saying ” What I don’t get is why the colleges in The States don’t support players to play pro while attending their college.  They give you a scholarship (worth thousands of dollars) because you are an amazing squash player but then stop you from playing pro for 3-4 years…”

This seems like a good point but is also not entirely true – it seems the players can play some events otherwise Victor Crouin wouldn’t be ranked where he is now at just 21 years of age.  Even if you win every tournament you enter when you are starting out on The PSA World Tour, it would still take around 18 months to earn enough points to reach the top 40.  American Colleges do allow some tournament play as long as it does not affect the players studies and college squash commitments – which would be the same at any university, just possibly stricter at a US College.  There are a lot of PSA tournaments to choose from in America, so the opportunity is there if the balancing act of playing the world tour and studying can be achieved.

I think what we can conclude is that many potential superstars have been taken away from starting out on the PSA Tour at 18, and while some do join the tour and reach a high ranking, most do not.  A quality player can build an impressive reputation by only playing in the US College squash tour, and then later, just playing in the US senior squash scene.  A cynic could say that a US College scholarship might lure potential world champions to only excel in a more comfortable, domestic environment….. but The PSA does not have the right to make every junior superstar into a senior superstar.  Not every 18-year-old wants to become a squash world champion – some want to move to America and live a happy, comfortable life with a well-paid job – and who could blame them.  Squash is a risky career choice because, unless you become a world top 20 player for several years, the money is not very good compared to other careers.

My overall thoughts are that a US College scholarship is a great idea for top junior squash players, but not for the best 2 or 3 in the world.  Loads of good English squash players have gone on to have successful squash coaching careers in America, better than if they’d stayed in The UK.  I think when it comes to the very best juniors, the ones who are good enough to reach the World Junior final – it would be nice to see them join the PSA World Tour at 17 or 18, giving themselves every chance to become a squash icon.  At that age they will learn and adapt so quickly to the demands of the tour, exactly what Diego Elias and Mustafa Asal have done – and they could even study at the same time if they wish, just not at such an intense establishment like Yale or Stanford – following in the footsteps of Ramy Ashour and Mohamed ElShorbagy.

by Andy Whipp