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A different court for world junior squash players

Tournament held in Allston after unrest in Egypt

A member of the Egyptian squash team, which is known for its touch and finesse. A member of the Egyptian squash team, which is known for its touch and finesse. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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Amanda Sobhy had faced her Egyptian opponent, Nour El Tayeb, six times before in her career, and lost more than she won.

Before a crowd of more than 100, the two - one from New York’s Long Island, one from Egypt - battled again yesterday in the Women’s World Junior Squash Championships, a tournament that was supposed to take place halfway around the world, in Cairo, where Tayeb and her three teammates would have found a friendlier crowd on far more familiar turf.

But geopolitics intervened.

In late January, the world’s attention was drawn to Cairo, as hundreds of thousands of citizens flooded city streets, protesting the longtime rule of Hosni Mubarak, demanding democratic reforms.

The protests went on for days, then weeks, and in some cases turned violent, before Mubarak resigned.

“As soon as we knew it was unrest, we said, ‘bring it to the United States,’ ’’ said Jodie Larson, Sobhy’s mother, sitting on the bench next to her daughter on the American side of the court. “It had to go somewhere.’’

The two-week tournament that organizers spent more than a year planning was suddenly in search of a more stable host. It was February, and the squash organizers scrambled. Phone calls flew.

Amir Wagih, the Egyptian head coach, said parents of players from around the world were not receptive to holding the tournament in Cairo.

But while life on Cairo streets ground to a halt, squash, which is similar to racquetball, went on, he said before yesterday’s match.

“Even during the revolution we opened the clubs every morning,’’ he said.

Eventually, during the most agitated times, the team was forced to cut practices to one a day, he said.

Kevin Klipstein, chief executive officer of US Squash, a New York City-based company that runs the leagues, said the decision was made in April to bring the tournament to the United States for the first time.

More than 100 people gave their time, Klipstein said, and others donated funds to make the tournament come together.

“We’ve had a couple generous benefactors,’’ he said.

With cooperation from Harvard and help from the Massachusetts squash community, 19 teams of women from around the world yesterday packed into the air-conditioned courts at Harvard University’s Murr Center in Allston.

Sobhy’s father, Khaled, who trains her and is from Egypt, has ferried the girls back and forth to train and play in his home country for more than a decade.

“She has the Egyptian touch,’’ Khaled Sobhy said, “but still has that power.’’

The Egyptian players know the Sobhys. Some trained with them in Cairo; some faced them in tournaments.

The national styles of play contrast, with Egyptian players known for touch and finesse, while Americans tend to exhibit more raw power, muscling the tiny black ball up to speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour, said Klipstein.

“The power, the finesse, the slow, the fast. If you have all of these [qualities], the next part is the mental,’’ Khaled Sobhy said. “And if you have that, you win.’’

Back in the final match, Amanda Sobhy pulled through, dancing around her opponent, Tayeb, to win three games to one, before an exuberant crowd.

But the effort was not enough. Her teammates, including Sobhy’s 14-year-old sister Sabrina, were overcome by the Egyptian squad, losing the championship in three matches.

Despite the loss, the outing was not a total write-off for Sobhy: She is set to attend Harvard in the fall, and will play squash there.

“I was happy when I heard they were moving [the tournament] here,’’ she said in an interview before the final match. “I checked out my dorm.’’

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.