by Tom Utescher
When she’s asked how she spent the summer, Chestnut Hill’s Olivia Fiechter won’t be at a loss for words; later this month the rising sophomore at Germantown Friends School will be representing her country at a world championship sporting event.
Fiechter and five teammates make up the United States contingent heading for the 2011 Women’s World Junior Squash Championships, which will take place in Cambridge, Mass. July 20-30.
A national champion at the Under-15 and Under-17 levels, Fiechter was the top player in the Philadelphia area during the 2010-2011 scholastic season, when she was a freshman constantly facing older opponents. She and two of her U.S. teammates are newcomers to the Junior World Team, but she has played abroad at summer tournaments in Europe over the past few years, gaining experience against opponents from other nations.
In addition to her training sessions with the U.S. Team, she revealed, “I’ve tried to play a lot of different people with different styles, because that’s what I’ll be seeing up there – a mixed group of players. It wouldn’t be productive to just practice against the same person all the time; you want to know what to do against different styles.”
The U.S. coaches are Jack Wyant, who heads both the men’s and women’s programs at the University of Pennsylvania, and South African ace Natalie Grainger, a distinguished pro player who has been president of the Women’s International Squash Professionals Association.
Wyant has confidence in Fiechter’s ability to thrive amidst a wide variety of rivals.
“She has a great maturity in terms of her ability to play at different speeds, and she uses all areas of the court really beautifully,” he said. “She can come at you hard and low, then high and softer. She’s a little like [Philadelphia Phillies pitcher] Cliff Lee in terms of having total command of the ball and of the speed at which she plays. From that standpoint, she’s difficult to play against.”
In past decades, British influence in Africa and Asia led to countries such as Australia, Egypt, Hong Kong, and Malaysia becoming dominant powers in the sport of squash. The U.S. lagged for many years, but has been coming on strong recently. The men’s and women’s junior world team tournaments are held on an alternating basis every two years, and in the 2009 women’s tourney the American side finished fourth, behind Egypt, Hong Kong, and India.
U.S. players made further strides at the individual championships in 2010 (they are held annually for both men and women), and it’s generally thought that this year the American squad is a bona fide contender for its first team championship.
The biennial event was originally to be staged in Cairo this year, but due to the period of civil unrest there over the winter, the competition was moved to the campus of Harvard University. The facility is well known to the American racquetwomen, since many U.S. junior tournaments are played there.
“At first I was excited when we were going to Egypt, because how many chances do you get to go to Egypt,” Fiechter recalled. “But now it’s on our home turf, and that’s good because it gives a more relaxed feel to the whole thing. We can just drive up and concentrate on squash, and not have to worry about a long flight.”
Fiechter is ranked fifth out of the six U.S. players heading for Harvard, where all the Americans will play in the individual portion of the championships (July 20-25).
The top four will then participate in the team tournament (July 26-30), in which any combination of three players may be selected by their coaches to play official matches. Obviously, coaches will tend to go with their top three seeds for the most challenging matches, and could alter the line-up against less formidable rivals.
“Olivia has qualified to play in the individual tournament, and if something were to happen injury-wise, there’s a good chance she could get into the team competition,” Winant remarked. “She’s young enough that she’s eligible to play again in two years, so she would be a strong favorite to make that team.”
At 15, Fiechter is the second-youngest member of the U.S. delegation in 2011. She’s only one from the Philadelphia area; the others all hail from the environs of New York City, including southwestern Connecticut. Olivia Blatchford, Haley Mendez, and Amanda Sobhy are 18 years old (Mendez actually turns 18 in August), and are veterans of the 2009 Junior World Team Tournament. Maria Elena Ubina is 16, and the youngest member of the squad, Amanda’s sister Sabrina Sobhy, is 14.
“The younger players are used to going up against the older girls, because we’ve all been doing that for many years,” said Fiechter, referring to the fact that talented youngsters frequently bump up an age bracket or two at junior tournaments in order to challenge themselves.
As one would expect, all of the U.S. players won numerous tournament titles on their way up through the racquet ranks, but the elder Sobhy, in particular, is a noteworthy trailblazer. Already active on the women’s professional tour at 16, Amanda was the first U.S. player to win four pro events in a single season. Last summer, she became the first American ever to capture the title at the individual World Junior Championships, defeating Egypt’s Nour El Tayeb at the tournament in Cologne, Germany.
Sobhy’s father, Khaled, was a standout at the junior level in his native Egypt, and subsequently reached the top 30 on the pro tour. For his daughters and their teammates, Egypt is expected to present the most difficult obstacle on the road to the 2011 team championship.
“They’re known for hitting it really hard and being really aggressive and having good hands,” Fiechter said of the defending champs. “You want to pressure them and not give them time to hit a lot of tricky shots. Then you might want to change the pace once in a while to keep from being too predictable.”
Along with other candidates for the team, Fiechter’s performance was evaluated at six designated junior tournaments this winter and early in the spring. She did not play in all of them, as she was undergoing different trials of her own.
In January she pulled the hamstring muscle in her right leg. Favoring that limb, she suffered a compensatory injury to her left hamstring two months later, then pulled the same muscle again in April. In addition to her regular individual lessons with Penn Charter coach Damon Leedale- Brown and Baldwin School mentor Karen Kronemeyer, she made three trips a week to physical therapist Joe Zarett, and slowly recovered.
She took time off through much of May, and she related, “Since then it’s mostly been trying to get my game back and getting my endurance up.”
Long hours spent in instruction sessions, practice matches, and conditioning and agility work have gotten her back into form.
“I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time and I’m excited,” she said. “I’m ready to go.”