Yasser El Halaby
His connection to Princeton started with a trip that he didn't take when he was 13. Now Yasser El Halaby has graduated in a class of one -- as the only four-time male national champion in collegiate squash history.
The man walking into Bob Callahan's office may not have been familiar, but the situation certainly was. The head coach of Princeton's men squash team since 1981, Callahan has grown accustomed to parents calling and visiting, campaigning for their child and hoping for a roster spot on the squash team at one of the nation's top universities.
Unfailingly polite, Callahan inquired as to the nature of the latest visit, and on whose behalf this particular visitor, a man named Diaa Abdelal, had come. The answer nearly knocked Callahan from his chair.
"He walked into my office one day unannounced and mentioned that he had a family friend that wanted to apply to Princeton," Callahan recalls. "I was somewhat jaded by requests I've had in the past. So when he mentioned Yasser's name my jaw dropped on the floor because he was the No. 1 player for his age and I think everyone assumed he would skip college and turn professional. It was one of my more enjoyable mornings in my 25 years at Princeton."
Yasser, of course, is Yasser El Halaby, who turned Callahan's enjoyable moment into four charmed years. During that span, from 2002 through 2006, El Halaby established himself as perhaps the best squash player in men's intercollegiate history. He claimed an unprecedented four national titles in four years, posted an overall record of 54-6 and, along the way, won countless fans with his graceful game and gentlemanly spirit.
"You have winners and you have champions, and those are different birds," Trinity coach Paul Assaiante said during El Halaby's junior season. "Yasser is a champion."
Better yet, Yasser delivered another potential champion to Callahan: his younger brother, Hesham, who followed Yasser from the brothers' home in Cairo, Egypt, to Princeton to pursue an education in the United States.
With Yasser '06 playing No. 1 singles and Hesham '09 playing at No. 4, the Tigers advanced to the finals of the 2006 team championships, falling one individual victory short of ending Trinity's run of seven straight national titles. Both Yasser and Hesham won their matches, but Princeton fell, 5-4.
In the individual championships, Yasser dropped just one game in five matches and defeated Harvard's Siddharth Suchde in the finals, 9-2, 9-0, 9-6. Hesham, meantime, earned the No. 11 seed and advanced to the Round of 16 before falling to Trinity's Gustav Detter, the only man to take a game off Yasser in the tournament.
"Fortunately the apple didn't fall far from the tree in that gene pool," Callahan says. "Hesham doesn't have quite the experience Yasser has, but he has tremendous ability. He's going to be a big part of our program going forward. When Yasser talked about coming I didn't know there was the potential for a second half. It was a nice surprise."
The love affair between Princeton and the El Halabys began from afar. When Yasser was 13, the Egyptian 18-and-under national team traveled to Princeton for the 1998 World Junior Championships. The precocious El Halaby was the No. 4 player on the junior national team at the time but did not make the trip because of his age. His teammates, however, came back raving about both the school and Callahan, and the seed was planted in El Halaby's mind.
"I knew that I would go to college regardless," Yasser says of the choice between college and the professional ranks. "My decision was between going to a college that was not too challenging so I could start playing professionally while still getting a degree of some sort; or going to the best college I could attend and passing on a full-time squash career. I obviously chose the latter."
Two years after Yasser enrolled at Princeton, Hesham made a similar choice, transferring from the Modern English School in Cairo to the Lawrenceville Prep School in New Jersey, just 15 minutes south of Princeton, for a post-graduate year.
Having Yasser as a sounding board and a built-in comfort zone, Hesham made an easy transition to life in the United States. The two brothers speak of each other in glowing terms, Yasser's proud and Hesham's deferential, and they demonstrate a near total lack of sibling rivalry despite their close proximity in age and head-to-head competition in squash.
"This past year was a great experience," Hesham says. "I enjoyed (my) freshman year at Princeton, and the team had a good season. It was also fun playing with Yasser on the team before he graduated. I would have never guessed that one day we would attend the same college in the U.S., and play on the same team, before he went to Princeton."
Says Yasser: "My senior year was perhaps most special. I was very touched to see my younger brother every day. Having him around was amazing. I also felt like I was growing up, and that my Princeton years were all coming together."
Despite their close bond, the El Halaby brothers spent this past summer preparing for different challenges. Hesham is taking a summer course at the University of Cairo and working to improve his game; Yasser has officially joined the professional squash tour, traveling the world in an attempt to gain his place in the sport's upper echelon.
It will not be an easy task for the elder El Halaby. While his peers have been training and playing professionally over the past four years, Yasser has routinely taken the court with the expectation of victory. That lack of seasoning will likely make for a rough adjustment to the pros, but Yasser — who Assaiante and Callahan believe has top 10 potential — says he has no regrets, adding that "my professional career was merely postponed."
"I've had an amazing time at Princeton," Yasser says. "Each year was distinct and special."
For his part, Callahan marvels at how easily and completely both Hesham and Yasser embraced their collegiate experiences. In particular, Callahan says Yasser's choice to attend college in the United States energized the game nationally, drawing non-squash fans to the subterranean squash courts at Princeton's Jadwin Gym and to the game in general.
Moreover, Callahan contends that Yasser's decision to attend Princeton has made it more acceptable for other top foreign players to attend college in the United States, a move that could have repercussions well into the future.
"Hopefully down the road someone who is 13 years old now will be inspired by Yasser and want to come to Princeton to play squash," Callahan says, then alluding to Hesham. "In the meantime, we're in pretty good hands with his brother."
— E.J. Crawford