Eli critics should watch El-Halaby, Illingworth duel

While it has become fashionable to harp on the recent futility of several prominent Yale sports teams, it is unfair to paint the whole program with that rancid brush. Saturday afternoon, another chapter in one of college sports’ premier individual rivalries played out on campus to minimal fanfare, and once again it provided world-class skill, mesmerizing competition and a dramatic desperation comeback. Right now, it’s time for people to come to grips with what they have on their plates here and realize that if they can’t be with the one they love, they should love the one they’re with.

The traditional Yale sports fan doesn’t want to hear that the most entertaining and successful teams this school has produced in the past few years play on the fourth floor of Payne Whitney Gym and not at the Yale Bowl or at Yale Field or in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. The Yalie who grew up attending football games at the Bowl with his father doesn’t want to admit that squash is the centerpiece of the athletic department. He doesn’t want to be ashamed when he talks to his friends at Michigan or Duke or Texas and has to resort to defending the Yale sports scene by invoking what appears to be a stereotypically-quintessential rich person’s leisure sport.

That person, while within his rights, is forsaking his chance to support one of the only programs in the school that competes consistently for championships on a national level — let alone championships within the in the Ivy League, which have become increasingly rare — and will have to be content lamenting an unfulfilled tenure as a Yale student sports fan. And while the women’s team is well on its way to defending its national title, the already-epic rivalry between Yale’s Julian Illingworth ’06 and Princeton’s Yasser El-Halaby became even more legendary this past weekend.

Illingworth came to Yale in 2002 as the reigning U.S. 19-and-under champion and the program’s most accomplished recruit in over a decade. El-Halaby arrived at Princeton from Egypt the same year as the No. 68 player in the world and the program’s most accomplished recruit “ever” according to his coach. But Yale’s new star didn’t necessarily consider himself on the level of his Princeton counterpart at the No. 1 position.

“I knew of him, but I don’t think he would have known of me. Growing up, he was much better than me, and even when I was being recruited he was much better than me in almost everybody’s minds,” Illingworth recalled. “Egyptians grow up with a squash racket in their hands. They’re all artists out there, and I don’t think the same can be said for American players. It’s more forced for us — it doesn’t come quite as naturally.”

The match-up is a classic contrast in style — the athleticism of Illingworth, who toyed with the idea of attempting to walk on to the varsity soccer team here his freshman year, pitted against the prolific skill of El-Halaby. (“His shots are really, really good,” confided Illingworth. “He can just shoot most people off the court. I’m one of the only people in college squash who has the athletic ability to get to his shots). And from the very beginning of their collegiate careers, this would provide the basis for several classic confrontations.

In the finals of 2002-03 pre-season Ivy League scrimmage — that is, on their second day of college competition- — Illingworth and El-Halaby were baptized by fire into the world of college squash as their teams jockeyed for an edge that would benefit them later in the season. At the time, Princeton was on the heels of an Ivy League title it had earned by eking out 5-4 wins over both Yale and Harvard the previous year. With Yale eager to prove the results would be different that year, the burden fell on Illingworth. Julian jumped to a 2-0 lead in games, but El-Halaby won the next two convincingly and triumphed 9-6 in the fifth. Yale lost 5-4.

That loss likely would have been more disappointing if it had counted for something, and Illingworth still had a chance to exact revenge when the stakes were much higher. So when Princeton returned for its regular season match against Yale in February, he came out on fire. He raced out to a 2-0 lead once again and, in front of a loud and partisan crowd, reached game ball at 8-4 in the third. But once again, Yasser rose up, taking the third 10-8, the fourth 9-0 and then the rubber game 9-5 over a deflated Illingworth. Again, Princeton won the match 5-4. Compounding the disappointment was the realization that, thanks to a win over Harvard two weeks later, an Illingworth victory would have meant Yale’s first Ivy League title since 1990.

“That match still stands out the most to me,” Illingworth said. “In hindsight, that was the closest Yale squash has come in my time here to winning an Ivy title. If I had won that match, we would have won.”

Illingworth would go on to lose to El-Halaby twice more during his sophomore campaign before finally getting over the hump last year in the consolation round of the national team tournament with a 3-1 victory. El-Halaby would win the national individual championship and assure himself of the No. 1 collegiate ranking he still holds today. Illingworth is currently ranked third.

But Saturday afternoon, with his team trouncing this year’s weak Princeton squad, Illingworth was able to finally beat the vaunted Yasser at his own game. After getting routed in the first game and beaten soundly in the second, Illingworth pulled off a rousing comeback of his own, taking down El-Halaby in five. Finally, after those excruciating losses, the tables had turned.

“Sure, I thought about it,” Illingworth said of the loss two years ago that made him realize how important it is to slam the door on a faltering opponent. “I knew I should have won. But I didn’t beat myself up too much. It felt really good to come back and win this time. When I got to 8-2 in the last game, I was focusing so hard to win that last point because I didn’t want to give him that chance to get back in.”

Harvard’s Will Broadbent, also a junior, is currently ranked second in the country. But his matches with Y and P standouts have lacked the drama and the circumstances that have made so many of the Illingworth-El Halaby duels special. But unlike the Magic-Bird dynamic that developed in college and flourished on the next level, Illingworth — ranked 130th in the world — predicted that Yale-Princeton is as good as this rivalry will get.

With Princeton lagging at No. 7 in the country and Yale focused on avenging two lopsided losses to Harvard last year, Illingworth has no need to harbor any ill will toward his most prominent opponent. But if it were Princeton in the way again this year, there’s little doubt Illingworth would bring a little something extra to the court if El-Halaby were in his way.

“I like Yasser, I think he’s a nice guy,” Illingworth said. “When we’re reffing before the match, it gets a little tense or whatever, but I’ve run into him at tournaments when we’re not playing each other and we get on fine. Recently, I think we’ve really hated Harvard more. With Princeton this year, we just pity them.”

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