Men's Athlete of the Decade: Yasser El Halaby ’06
From 2002 to 2006, Yasser El Halaby ’06 helped transform squash at Princeton from a niche sport to one of the University’s proudest and most storied athletic traditions. With superb athleticism, a deft touch and a staunch commitment to sportsmanship, El Halaby notched an astonishing 54-6 career record and a perfect 20-0 record in the individual postseason tournament to become the only male collegiate squash player to win the individual national championship four consecutive times.
Recognized from his early teens as one of the best players in his age group, El Halaby turned the world of collegiate squash on its head in the fall of 2000 when he decided to delay a promising professional career to complete his education. Matriculating at Princeton in the fall of 2002, the Egyptian immediately became an impact player and took on the No. 1 spot — a role he did not relinquish until his graduation.
As a freshman, El Halaby led the team to the Ivy League championship and a second-place finish in the Collegiate Squash Association National Team Championships. El Halaby also won the CSA National Intercollegiate Singles Tournament and received Ivy League Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors in the same season — the first Princeton player to ever do so.
In his second year, El Halaby continued to dominate, once again winning the individual title and leading the team to another Ivy League championship. He also became the first amateur in history to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, a professional tournament held in New York City that claims to be one of the biggest squash tournaments in the world.
El Halaby earned two more individual national championships in his final two years at Princeton, losing only four games total in the four years that he competed in the tournament. His championship victories as a junior and senior were perhaps the most impressive of his career: In both years, he earned 3-0 victories over players he had lost to earlier in the season — including a 39-minute victory over Harvard’s Siddharth Suchde when El Halaby was a senior.
The matches El Halaby played at Jadwin Gymnasium became known for their energy and excitement, drawing hundreds of spectators who came simply to see the legend play. Fans were treated not only to superb squash, but also to an uncommonly high degree of sportsmanship: El Halaby was known to be “overly fair,” according to men’s squash head coach Bob Callahan ’77 — a particularly admirable quality in a sport in which interference between players can sometimes be the norm.
“I play squash to have fun,” El Halaby told The Daily Princetonian in 2006. “Squash was my fourth or fifth sport to pick up, and I do not see the point of not playing fair. Not only with squash and the way you behave on the courts, but it also tells about the way you are.”
In addition to his strong play and leadership, El Halaby made it a point to set a good example for his teammates off the court and immerse himself in Princeton’s intellectual community. Switching into the philosophy department after initially being a politics major, El Halaby found himself tasked with writing three junior papers — a daunting proposition that he embraced without complaint. Indeed, El Halaby was so committed to his studies that he even considered pursuing a master’s degree after graduation, putting off the possibility only for a few years to give himself time to play squash professionally.
Since El Halaby’s departure from Princeton, few athletes in any sport have been able to achieve the level of sheer domination that El Halaby did. He was, quite simply, exquisite: the kind of once-in-a-generation competitor who for four unbelievable years stood at the pinnacle of his sport and never once looked like he would ever take a step down. For his remarkable accomplishments — unmatched in the history of collegiate squash and in Princeton athletics — Yasser El Halaby is The Daily Princetonian’s Male Athlete of the Decade.