For a high-level competitor heading in to the semifinal match of a big tournament, Mason Ripka had a somewhat surprising air of nonchalance. For a 12-year-old, on the other hand, the relaxed demeanor was pretty much par for the course. Ripka was one of several dozen top junior squash players gathered at the SL Green StreetSquash Center in Harlem on Saturday to play in the inaugural Tournament of Champions Junior Open. The actual Tournament of Champions, an elite pro event that attracts the best players in the world to New York, was underway at the same time several miles to the south in Grand Central Terminal. As usual, Grand Central tournament featured an ornate setting, a four-walled
Scott Chapin and Mason Ripka (left to right), were first- and second-place winners respectively in the Tournament of Champions Junior Open for boys under 15. Photo by Andrew Schwartz glass court, assorted photographers and hundreds of spectators. The scene was much less frenetic at the StreetSquash Center, but no less competitive. "In big tournaments, I usually get a little nervous, but not here," Ripka said. For now, the Junior Open may not qualify as a big tournament, even if it drew some of the top young players in the Northeast, from Boston down to D.C. Still, it's one of the highlights of the New York squash calendar, and Khaled Sobhy, the tournament director and founder, thinks it will only grow. "We're trying to bring in the best players from the U.S. and overseas to make this into a really big event," he said. The presence of players like Ripka certainly helps. The Upper East Sider, a student at Columbia Prep, is already a globetrotting member of the squash set. He has entered 16 tournaments over the past year and knows many of the top pros, including his favorite, Gregory Gaultier, currently the fourth highest-ranked player in the world. Gaultier, in fact, gave Ripka the athletic shirt he was wearing Saturday when he took the court for his semifinal against Jordan Brail, a friend and frequent rival. Ripka is currently rated as the second-best player in the country under 13 by U.S. Squash, and Brail is fourth, so the match-up promised to be interesting. In the end, it was well played but not very close. Ripka, with a crisp, economical focus that contrasted with his pre-game insouciance, displayed some superlative shot-making ability and a ranginess that belied his short stature. He won 11-4, 11-5, 11-2. Brail, an Upper West Sider who attends Riverdale, was clearly unhappy with his performance but all tension was quickly forgotten. Ten minutes later, the two friends were chatting amicably while watching another match. And there was some consolation for Brail: he still leads the all-time series between him and Ripka 8-4. Ripka lost in the championship match the next day to Scott Chapin, but his future looks tremendously promising. He took up the sport when he was 8, mostly as a simple diversion. "I was just flipping the ball around," Ripka said. "I wasn't serious about it. But you get addicted to the game." Within a couple of years, he was a rising star and competing regularly against older players in order to hone his skills. He has finished second twice at the national championships, first in the under-11 draw and then in the under 13. His sights are firmly set on finally obtaining that coveted title. A more cherished victory, though, came recently when he beat his father and coach, Alan, for the first time. "It was my happiest day and my saddest day," the elder Ripka recalled. The finals of the under-17 draws for the Junior Open were held at Grand Central, giving the youngsters an opportunity to revel in the bright lights, but the StreetSquash Center was a worthy substitute for the professional stage. Located at 115th Street between Fifth and Lenox avenues, it seems at first a bit incongruous to its surroundings. Squash, after all, is typically the domain of fancy private clubs in Midtown or the Upper East Side. But StreetSquash, a 10-year-old organization, is starting to change that. Similar to other urban youth sports programs like Ice Hockey in Harlem, StreetSquash provides a holistic environment that offers athletic and academic training for local children. Until recently, it had no home and had to borrow courts from Columbia University. In November, though, the StreetSquash Center opened. The 18,000-square foot, $9 million facility features locker rooms, classrooms and eight international standard courts, the highest number at any location in New York City. The center has allowed StreetSquash, which started with 24 kids in 1999, to expand from its traditional after-school program to new ventures such as summer camps and physical education classes for surrounding schools.
Amanda Sobhy lunges for the ball with Haley Mendez behind her. Sobhy went on to defeat Mendez in three straight games. Photo by Andrew Schwartz
"Last year, we served 180 kids throughout the year," Sage Ramadge, StreetSquash's director of strategic development, said. "This year, we'll serve more than 1,000. And all of it is free for the kids." And in the years to come, the center will host new varsity squash teams from Columbia and future iterations of the Tournament of Champions Junior Open. It may not be Grand Central, but for Mason Ripka, his competitors and all the StreetSquash participants, it's still a pretty lofty stage. ----- Sports Briefs Baseball Fever?It may be cold now, but spring isn't so far off. And in preparation, many youth baseball leagues have already opened registration. The Peter Stuyvesant Little League, for one, is actively recruiting players. Not just limited to Stuytown, the league is open to all children between 5 and 16 who live on the East Side, between 59th and 14th streets The Yorkville Youth Athletic Association, serving the Upper East Side, has similarly opened its spring programs for registration. For more information, visit yyaa.org for Yorkville or psll.org for the Peter Stuyvesant league.