Over the course of their squash careers at Penn, senior Thomas Mattsson and junior Nabilla Ariffin have earned the right to play the vast majority of their matches as the No. 1 player of the men’s and women’s teams, respectively..
However, the reward for competing as the squad’s No. 1 is occasionally bittersweet, as Mattsson and Ariffin have often sacrificed their individual records for the benefit of their teams.
On the women’s side, the team is just 6-5 in the No. 1 spot, which has been shared by Ariffin and current No. 2 Rachael Goh. By comparison, the Quakers sport a nearly flawless 10-1 record in both the No. 4 and No. 7 slots.
“As the record shows, I’m not winning as much as I should, but I guess that’s the sacrifice I have to make so that everyone else is in a better position,” Ariffin said.
Ariffin has just 25 wins to her name, despite being the superior player in the team’s internal rankings. Meanwhile, fellow All-American teammate Yarden Odinak is approaching the 40-win mark, and All-American Pia Trikha has reached 41 wins for her career.
Though Ariffin admits that the losses occasionally frustrate her, she also relishes the chance to play in the highest echelon of collegiate squash.
“It’s an honor to be playing at No. 1 and playing with all these great players that I wouldn’t [otherwise] be able to play,” Ariffin said.
In his four years at Penn, Mattsson has played almost exclusively as the men’s No. 1. But even after four years, the challenges of competing against internationally ranked players continue to motivate him, perhaps now more than ever.
“What comes with playing No. 1 is that … you want to work the hardest,” the Philadelphia native said. “You try to get the most out of practice and work hard with the team to give you confidence going into those hard matches.”
Mattsson has become accustomed to the stiff competition of the No. 1 seeds. In the last year, he has shifted his focus and put greater trust into the system prepared by his coaches, resulting in significant improvements to his game.
“I have the best coaching staff in the country, I think,” Mattsson said. “So I never really feel overmatched when I go in there. I just try to play the game that I’ve been practicing for the last 10 years.”
Every squash program uses a different system to determine the ladder of nine players that battle in each match and who will compete as the team’s top player. While other schools may take seniority into account, Penn decides its lineup purely by the players’ performances on the court in weekly challenge matches.
Arrifin and Mattsson have both found the frequent challenge matches to be a fair approach to deciding seeds. They praised the system for generating a sense of healthy competition among teammates, driving players to constantly work hard to either maintain their spots or move ahead.
“Every single week your position is always up for grabs,” Mattsson said. “The player behind you wants your position, and that’s what we want. We want to create competition.”
“If you don’t create competition, no one’s going to get better.”