An invention of the English who played it—or something very like it—to while away tedious hours in the courtyards of 18th century debtors' prisons, the game of squash racquets is now popular pretty much all over the world. But by an odd quirk of fate, or perhaps by Allah's specific design, all of its greatest champions come not only from one nation but from one single family in that nation—the Khans of Pakistan. The Khans are to squash what the Bachs were to music, what the Zacchinis are to being shot from cannons.
Hashim, the mightiest of the Khans, has won the world's squash racquets championship seven separate times and has held titles in 40 different countries. The current British and American squash racquets open champion is Hashim's younger brother, Azam. The Australian open champion is Azam and Hashim's nephew, 23-year-old Mohibullah. The Canadian open champion is Mohibullah's cousin Roshan, 34, who lost the U.S. open championship to his cousin Azam in the finals in January.
These are not all of the squash-playing Khans. There is also Sharrif Khan, the 16-year-old son of Hashim and the pupil of Azam. He is the British junior champion. Safirullah Khan, Mohibullah's father, is the professional at the Sind Club in Karachi and the holder of several professional titles. Gulamed, the 13-year-old brother of Mohibullah, is expected one day to be world champion. Samiullah Khan is the professional at Karachi's Municipal Corporation Club. Roshan's brother, Nazrullah, is the pro at the Junior Carlton Club in London. Under the tutelage of Roshan, two more Khans—the sons of Nazrullah—will almost certainly be winning championships before long.
Abdul the ball boy
April 2, 1962
This fantastic and continuing dominance began a century ago when a young Moslem was allowed by his British employers to serve as ball boy at a racquets court in an Empire army post in what was then India. That young man, Abdul Majeed Khan, born about the time of the battle of Bull Run, served for 65 years as the racquets pro (racquets is an older form of the game than squash racquets and is played on a slightly larger court) at the Peshawar Club in Peshawar. At the age of 76 he spotted the local British champion six points and beat him 9-6. (Unless there is a tie, the English game ends at nine points, the American game at 15.) Twenty years later, in 1950, his young cousin Hashim, then 36, journeyed from Pakistan to England to beat the best squash players in the world and make the name Khan an international hallmark of excellence at the game.
At that time Hashim Khan was employed as coach of the infant Pakistan air force. "They think Hashim is too old for the game," says Hashim, puffing out his barrel of a chest, "but Hashim fool them." Accustomed to roofless courts and not too familiar with the British style of play, Hashim was far from polished in his first overseas tournament. But he had one unbeatable advantage: nobody could get a ball past him. Incredibly fast and endlessly patient, he was the best retriever the British or anyone else had ever seen. During one rally in the finals against the fine Egyptian stylist, Mahmoud Abd El Karim, Hashim returned his opponent's smashes and tricky placements 37 times by actual count until the frenzied Egyptian could stand it no longer and slammed the ball into the telltale through sheer frustration. The acrobatic little Pakistani then proceeded to finish off the Egyptian champion 9-5, 9-0, 9-0.
From England, Hashim went on to win the Scottish and Australian titles, spreading the fame of Pakistan and the Khans wherever he went. On his return home he persuaded his younger brother, Azam, a local tennis champion, to stop this outdoor nonsense and concentrate on the family game. Azam was reluctant but submitted to Hashim's intense coaching for three months. Though he played the game more like tennis than true squash, with wide, sweeping strokes, Azam was soon good enough for international play. The following year, the finals of the British open squash racquets tournament were played between the two brothers with Hashim winning as he pleased—a pattern that was to continue in most open and professional tournaments for the next 10 years.
On to the U.S.
In 1954 Hashim was invited to the U.S., to play in the first American open tournament. Despite the fact that the American form of the game was completely unfamiliar to him (it is played on a smaller court and requires much faster reflexes than the English game but not as much fast running) Hashim learned with every shot he made and reached the finals, beating Champion G. Diehl Mateer Jr. on the way. Overconfident, Hashim then lost to the Boston amateur, Henri Salaun. Two years later Hashim made up for this unpardonable lapse. He arranged for his brother Azam to enter the tournament in 1956. Azam beat the Americans, then Hashim beat Azam.
Bothered by knee trouble and more or less retired from championship play now, Hashim keeps in shape today by serving as the squash pro at the Uptown Athletic Club in Detroit. He upholds the family honor by spotting local champions 12 points a game and beating them handily. Occasionally he takes them on two or three at a time as he did once in Australia when he beat the top-ranking Aussie pro (Tennis Player Frank Sedgman) and two amateurs.
During the period of his championship, however, Hashim won more titles than anyone in the history of the game—often under codeine dosage to ease the pain in his knees, or while battling the flu or suffering from cramps in his wiry legs. Meanwhile, to ensure the continuity of the dynasty, two other Khans have been toppling over whatever opponents Hashim may have missed. These Khans are young Mohibullah (the heir apparent) and Roshan.
A few weeks ago the Pakistan ambassador to the U.S. introduced Mohibullah and Roshan to President Kennedy at the White House. The President wondered how it was that the Khan family happened to show such worldwide dominance in squash. "We told him," recalls good-looking, dark-haired, left-handed Mohibullah, "that members of family play every day—the older ones against best competition available; young ones, who start the game at about 8, under best instruction. Almost every member of family either plays or teaches. We think it is good for Pakistan to be champion in squash."
Hashim, who lives alone in Detroit while his wife and seven children live with Azam and his eight children in London, was ruminating recently over the special qualities of the Khans that make them outstanding players. "Azam is having best drop shot," he said. "Mohibullah has biggest variety of shot-making and hits hardest ball. Azam has most determination to win. Hashim has thinking and experience. When opponent likes fast game, Hashim plays slow; when opponent likes slow, Hashim plays fast. Against big man, Hashim makes him stoop to floor with low shots. Against tennis player used to open tennis court, Hashim hits ball all the time very close to wall. Against Frank Sedgman, who rushes to front wall like tennis player rushing to net, Hashim gives plenty of lobs. Against player wearing glasses, Hashim gives many high shots, which he has difficulty seeing because of light overhead. When Hashim teaches, he emphasizes thinking."
It is probably significant that in this summary Hashim made no mention of Roshan, whom some consider the best of all the Khans. In the 1958-59 season Roshan out-Hashimed Hashim by winning the British, Pakistan, U.S., Australian and Egyptian opens—and he is the only Khan, experts say, to have truly mastered the American game. The trouble is that Roshan stems from the other branch of the Khan family. His forebear was Abdul Majeed's contemporary, Said Ali Khan, who played the game with a long white beard that in no way bothered his kills. Because Hashim and Roshan each wish to see his side of the family at the top, a spirited rivalry results. Sometimes it leads to mayhem.
In 1956, down two games to none in the final of the Dunlop Open, Azam, who represents Hashim's side of the clan, hit Roshan in the mouth with his racket, knocking out five of Roshan's front teeth. Advised to default, Roshan, who seemed far less distressed than Azam over the mishap, took time out, lost two games but won the fifth for the championship. In the finals of the U.S. open that year, Roshan, having eliminated Salaun in the semifinal and leading Hashim one game to none, was cracked in the calf by a murderous smash off Hashim's racket. Unable to run, Roshan continued to play but lost in a rout. In the 1956 U.S. open, Roshan got his wrist in the way of Azam's racket twice and his right eye once. He managed to beat Azam, however.
When the Khans play non-Khans they rely on a vast repertoire of strokes—drop shots, lobs and so on. When they compete against one another, however, they generally hit straight down-the-wall shots on the presumption that it's foolish for a Khan to try to outfox a Khan. They play what is called "tight squash"—that is, they position themselves very close to one another, hitting the ball over the opponent's shoulder or around his back or from under his legs, sometimes stretched over or across him like a trellis vine. "When the Khans play one another," a British expert has commented, "they could be wearing the same pair of pants."
Over the last decade the Khans' influence on the style of play—particularly in England—has been tremendous. Their emphasis on power, flick shots, half-volleys and aggressive volleys rather than on pure stroking and careful placements has speeded up the game. A major Khan theory is to swat the ball back to an opponent so fast that he cannot get set for his shot.
The Khans themselves, besides having the endurance of Sherpas, are remarkable contortionists who seem able to cover remote corners of the court at lightning speed and sometimes appear to be going in two directions at once. Since the American game is a very fast game anyway, their influence has been less over here, but many American players and coaches have tried to borrow their tricks. Noting that Hashim and Mohibullah both choke their rackets, Diehl Mateer, considered America's finest player, once adopted the style only to find it weakened his shots. Since Hashim and Mohibullah hit some of the hardest balls in squash with their choked grips, their technique is apparently another Khan secret.
Squash to the Khans is not a game at all, but a sacred family trust. With single-minded zeal, they have learned to dominate it as no other family has ever dominated any sport, and a Khan would no more give away a point or a secret to a stranger than a Boston Brahmin would dip into the family capital.
Though never a great tournament player himself, Nazrullah Khan is considered to be the greatest of all the Khans teaching the game, and is, in a sense, the family philosopher. Relaxed and articulate, Nazrullah has made London's Junior Carlton Club a mecca for young players wishing to absorb his ideas about the relationship between squash, geometry and chess. Nazrullah believes the squash player should concentrate on two things: the shot being played and the tactical position he is trying to build up four or five shots hence—but he should always be aware that his opponent's next shot (like an unforeseen move in chess) may destroy the pattern he is trying to set up and force him to start all over.
Nazrullah's explanation of why the Khans are so good is that they start to play so young that they develop a phenomenal sense of anticipation. "They get to know by instinct," he says, "the shot their opponent will be forced to make nine times out of 10, and, thinking ahead, can race for the spot to which it will rebound almost before the shot is hit."
Not long ago, Azam Khan was asked how long he thought the family would dominate squash. His eyes brightened as he presumably thought about young members of the vast clan in Peshawar, Karachi and London arriving early at squash courts for free, expert instruction, consecrating themselves to the game the Khans have taken for their own. "Maybe forever," he said.