“The first time I played her was when we were both nine years old,” sophomore Reeham Salah recalled. “We both just started getting into squash, so I won that match in three games, but it was tight from the beginning.”
Tight from the beginning. That’s a pretty good way of describing the rivalry between Penn’s Salah and Harvard’s Sabrina Sobhy, the collegiate game’s unquestioned two best players. On the court, it’s impossible to say who’s better. Off the court, they are close friends who are impossible to pull apart.
It’s an unlikely pairing as well. While they have known each other since middle school, Salah’s and Sobhy’s paths share little beyond the immense amount of time they have dedicated to their sport.
Growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, squash was sparsely played in Salah’s neigborhood. To remedy that, the budding superstar looked east. Every month, Salah would fly cross-country to compete in the northeast’s esteemed tournaments. It was here in the northeast that she played Sobhy that first time when she was nine, and it was here in the northeast that she would continue to play Sobhy throughout her youth.
Unlike Salah, Sobhy did not have to look nearly as far for top-level competition. A Long Island native, most tournaments were within easy driving range and often, Sobhy wouldn’t even have to leave her house to find competition. That’s because Sobhy’s older sister, Amanda, was even better than her. In fact, Amanda, who graduated from Harvard in 2015, currently stands as the sixth-ranked player in the entire world.
For all the differences Salah and Sobhy had growing up, the two now find themselves in remarkably similar circumstances. With undefeated Harvard ranked first in the country and Penn ranked second, both players are gearing up for this weekend’s Collegiate Squash Association Team Championships at their respective teams’ No. 1 positions.
Predicting the winner of a match between them is anyone’s guess, but it’s much easier to see how the two of them have dominated the college game ever since they arrived last year as freshmen.
“I would say that’s the one thing about Reeham and Sabrina, is that they’re the two fastest squash players in college squash,” Penn coach Jack Wyant said. “So that’s kind of what sets them apart from everyone else.”
Salah’s athleticism has challenged Wyant to even find adequate competition for her to practice against.
“We’ve kind of structured her training such that we’ll have her match up with, in reality, mostly men,” Wyant said. “And what we’ve instructed them to do is to play her in a style that makes her most uncomfortable.”
That training has been a big part of all of Salah’s success this season. Heading into the championships, Salah has yet to lose a single game, let alone an entire match. And yes, that includes a 3-0 victory over Sobhy in a January match that Harvard ultimately won 7-2.
Despite all the individual triumphs, a shadow has hung over Salah’s every match this season. In last year’s championship final between Harvard and Penn, the score was deadlocked at four heading into the final match between Salah and Sobhy. With everything on on the line, Salah came up just short, losing a four-game heartbreaker.
“Mentally, I was pretty down after that match, but it also helped me realize that there weaknesses that I had in my game,” Salah said. “And I think this year, I’ve really been working on that. So I think it was a good learning experience for me.”
While Salah’s learning has gone spectacularly so far, the stakes are raised in the postseason. It’s not guaranteed Harvard and Penn will meet in the finals once again, but the two are certainly heavily favored to. And if a rematch does happen, no one can tell you who will win, but one thing will be clear.
It will be tight.