NEW YORK, N.Y. - Squash is one of the most captivating sports in New York City. New York City is considered one of the best places in the country to play squash. Columbia University joined the New York squash community when it started a varsity program in 2010.
Led by Columbia Alumni and Friends Head Coach Jacques Swanepoel, the Lions' men's squash program has quickly risen into the national spotlight in only its second season. Along with taking monumental strides by defeating Ivy League opponent Brown and finishing as runner-up in the Hoehn Cup B Division of the 2012 CSA National Championships, Swanepoel will be the first to tell you that there is one other reason to be excited about Columbia squash.
In just his first season in Columbia Blue, Ramit Tandon has captivated the college squash world and ignited a spark for the Lions' emerging program. The Kolkata, India, native has posted an 8-0 record thus far this season and Swanepoel described him as "definitely the most exciting player in college squash."
One of the main principles Swanepoel has established in his program is a family atmosphere. College squash has become very much an international sport within the Ivy League and a familial bond remains an important team aspect to develop among players. As so, it is no coincidence that a family connection brought Swanepoel and Tandon together.
As an 18-year-old phenom ranked among the top 250 players in the world, Tandon was a highly-touted recruit with every top school in the country showing interest. However, Tandon held a special interest in the city of New York.
"New York is the best place for squash in the United States and that was one point I was focusing on because other schools were good as well," Tandon said. "But there are many professional players in New York City, so Columbia was my choice."
"I had first heard of Columbia through a mutual friend of Coach Swanepoel in India and I heard good things about the program so I really wanted to come."
That mutual friend was Swanepoel's college roommate at Trinity College, who also happened to be a friend of Tandon's family in India. That family connection that Coach Swanepoel advocates ultimately landed Tandon at Columbia.
The Ivy League is one of the perennial power conferences in college squash. The beginning of the 2011-12 season featured six programs ranked in the Dunlop CSA Top 10 along with three of the top five players in the country. A great test lies ahead for Tandon, who opened the season in the top position for the second-year Columbia program. Tandon exceeded all expectations this season and became arguably not only the best player in the Ivy League, but in all of college squash.
"At the beginning of the season we thought he would be top 20, a second or maybe a first team All-American," Swanepoel said. "We didn't actually think we would have someone that would compete for an individual title."
Tandon has had an amazing year, going undefeated in match play this season -- including a win over 2011 CSA individual national champion Todd Harity of Princeton. Peter Lasusa, the Chairman of the Board of Directors for US Squash, described it as one of the most exciting matches of the season.
"It's really exciting to have players like Ramit play in the United States because squash is big all over the world," Lasusa said. "He is not only a good college player, but good on the national level as well."
Along with an Ivy League class and practice schedule, Tandon took time to represent his country in one of the biggest moments in his young career at the SDAT WSF Under-21 World Cup in India in this month.
Tandon helped lead fourth-seeded India to its first ever appearance in a world squash final. He won a critical deciding match against France in the World Cup semi-finals.
At the No. 2 position for India, Tandon battled with Frenchman Geoffrey Demont, who ranked almost 200 places higher in the international standings. Tandon went into the fourth game leading 2-1 and muscled out a 14-12 win.
"Ramit was absolutely brilliant. His hands are world-class," India National coach Cyrus Poncha said. "When he decided to go to the USA to study, I feared he might never play for India again. But because of his desire and the support from his parents, he still continues to train over here and the results are here for all to see."
Although India would fall to the favorite Egypt in the finals, it went on to finish second in the WSF Under-21 World Cup, its highest finish in history.
"It was only a year ago that Ramit made a major contribution to India's victory over the favorite Pakistan in the Asian Junior Team Championship final - which resulted in our first regional title," Poncha said.
As hard-working and devoted as Tandon was in India, it came as no surprise to some that he returned to his Columbia family following the tournament to play the Ivy League-leading Princeton Tigers.
"I was a little jet lagged coming from India but I really wanted to play and help my team," Tandon said.
The battle of Princeton's Todd Harrity and Columbia's Ramit Tandon marked a national match-up of the No. 2 and No. 4 players. Tandon showed no signs of fatigue as he pulled the upset to win in four games: 11-6, 11-5, 7-11, 11-5.
"He has ability like no one else in the league. There is no one else in the league that can compete with his ability to finish points and to create something out of nothing. He is definitely very exciting to watch," Swanepoel said.
"I definitely think with the kind of person he is along with his ability, he has set a great example even being a first-year. He has this leader aura about him. I think a lot of the guys feed off of him and think that's part of why we played so well at nationals."
Much as he did in India, Ramit helped lead the Lions to a monumental moment in the program's young history. Fourteenth-ranked Columbia entered the 2012 CSA National Championships as the sixth seed in the Hoehn Cup (B Division).
The Lions began the tournament with a 5-4 upset over No. 11 Navy. Columbia continued to roll as it upset No. 10 Williams College in the semi-finals, earning a trip to the finals to face No. 9 Penn. A runner-up finish in the Hoehn Cup secured a top-10 finish for the year for the Lions and a 4-0 run for Tandon solidified him as one of the top players in college squash.
Tandon will compete in the 2012 CSA Individual National Championships from March 2-4. He will enter as the No. 2 seed going into the tournament with a good chance of winning the title. Many believe it will come down to him and Harvard's no. 1, Ali Farag from Egypt.
"With his skill set and the fact that he his improving everyday, Ramit is definitely a contender for the national title and the kind of person that can be a top professional player one day," Swanepoel said.
The Columbia men's squash program continues to push forward to become a staple in the college squash world. Behind the leadership of Swanepoel and exciting play of Ramit Tandon, Columbia squash is on the road to emerge as one of the top programs in college squash.