By John Torenli
Haley Mendez, a 17-year-old Brooklyn Heights resident and product of the Heights Casino junior squash program, took Harvard University by storm during the past week, lifting Team USA to a historic appearance in the finals of the World Squash Federation Championships.
The Packer Collegiate graduate entered the annual event as an unseeded player simply hoping to provide some support for higher ranked teammates like second-seeded defending individual champion Amanda Sobhy, also of New York, and No. 3 seed Olivia Blatchford, another former Casino junior.
But by the time Team USA left Boston, Mendez had qualified for the round of 16 in individual play for the first time ever, and also helped the U.S. squad reach an unprecedented team final against perennial powerhouse Egypt.
“I’m so proud of her,” National Team coach Natalie Grainger said of Mendez after she stunned Australian junior Tamika Saxby, a 5/8 seed, 11-8, 12-10 and 11-9.
“She’s transformed herself with so much hard work, and this is a great reward for that,” added Grainger, who is a former No. 1 player on the international circuit.
Though Mendez eventually fell to Egypt’s Salma Hany in the individual Round of 16, her breakthrough triumph in the third round may have provided the confidence she needed for what proved to be her most important match of the tournament.
“I never felt under a lot of pressure and always felt I was in control,” noted Mendez, who would need that poise during a four-set thriller in the team semifinals this past weekend.
After Sobhy and Blatchford split their two matches in the best-of-3 with India, the heat was on Mendez to deliver in the decider against fellow 17-year-old Aparajitha Balamurukan from Chennai.
The duo were level over the first two sets, but Mendez found a way to avenge a loss to Balamurukan on her native soil two years ago by eking out the final two stanzas by identical 11-9 scores.
The landmark win for U.S. squash was also sure to elevate Mendez’s world ranking for future events. Team U.S.A. spokesman Jack Wyant was amazed by her performance under duress.
“Haley is so fit, she just kept on going, kept on running and worked so hard to pull that victory out for us,” Wyant said. “Making the final was everything for us — it means we’ve medaled for sure, which is a first, certainly in my lifetime, and there’s still a title to play for.”
Mendez never got on the court for the final as Sobhy and Blatchford both were blanked, 3-0.
Headed back to Harvard as a freshman in the fall, Mendez has now capped a brilliant 2011 in which she captured a win on the Junior Championship Tour, finished third in this year’s U.S. Junior Squash Championships and earned the DeRoy Sportsmanship Award.