Imagine that Rod Laver had a father, Big Rocket, an even better player than son at son's best. And a younger brother, too, Little Rocket, who could take Rod on the days when his first serve was not behaving. Oh yes, and an uncle, Old Smoothie Laver, an absolutely flawless stylist; he could kill you with finesse. To say nothing of a couple of wild, scrambling cousins known as The Great Laver Retrievers. Red hair flopping over the eyes—that sort of thing. They could outlast everybody, except, of course, their uncle, their father and Rod. The family, so our little fantasy goes, totally dominated world tennis from 1950 to the present.
The reader must allow only for understatement. Something very like this has happened in the far less publicized world of squash. For a quarter of a century squash racquets, the blue-blood sport of British Army officers and Ivy Leaguers, has been played by a Pakistani family named Khan as if it had invented the game. Seldom has success composed so monotonous a plot. Consider just the North American Open, squash's equivalent of Forest Hills. Since 1956 only two American players have managed to win the tournament: G. Diehl Mateer Jr. in 1959 and Ralph E. Howe in 1967. Otherwise the Khans have made the North American Open a closed affair. Only the first name changes: Hashim Khan (1956, 1957, 1963); Roshan Khan (1958, 1960, 1961); Azam Khan (1962); Mohibullah Khan (1964, 1965, 1966, 1968); Sharif Khan (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974).
How did this odd couple—American squash and Pakistani champions—get together? Like any proper Eastern legend, the story takes a bit of spinning. It starts half a century ago with a bright-eyed 8-year-old boy walking the two miles from his native village of Nawakille to Peshawar. Peshawar, a walled city with 16 gates situated about 40 miles from the Khyber Pass, is the capital of the old Northwest Frontier province, made famous by Rudyard Kipling and late-night movies like Gunga Din. In the old quarter, Pathan tribesmen, from whom the Khans are descended, still stroll the streets, wearing guns in their belts and flowers in their hair. In the British quarter in the 1920s there are lawns, parks, gravel walks—the little bit of England of Englishmen in exile. And, to be sure, the British officers' club with its bar, its billiard rooms, its lawn tennis and squash courts.
The January temperature in Peshawar averages around 50°. The annual rainfall is only about 15 inches. The squash courts of 50 years ago are uncovered. The walls are brick, coated by plaster. There are steps in the back wall. That 8-year-old boy, Hashim Khan, climbs these steps, perches on the wall, and sees his first squash. When a ball flies over the wall, the "British officers do not run out little back door," Hashim recalled over 40 years later in his charming as-told-to book, Squash Racquets: The Khan Game. "They stand and look up to smile at me." Thus the first and foremost of the Khans becomes a ball boy for five rupees a month—about SI.
January 6, 1975
Around five o'clock the officers repair to the showers and the bar. Hashim comes down off the wall and plays. When the moon is high and bright, he plays far into the evening: Hashim vs. Hashim. "I stand in back and stroke ball very soft to front. True, that other Hashim knows where ball is going, I cannot keep this secret from him. Still he runs like a hare to arrive before the second bounce. Ah, he succeeds!...back...front...left...right...always running, stroking, running."
With cheerful realism Hashim, fatherless at 11, commits himself to squash: "It is wrong to be here in this school, I think...Nothing here helps me. But on courts, I can learn, someday I can make money this way. Look at professionals. English officers give them a salary to teach them game that comes from England."
Marvelous and unpredictable were the ways of colonialism. Young Hashim made his living stringing rackets, renting himself out as playing partner—temporizing. He was 28 when he became the squash pro to the British Air Officers' mess in Peshawar, his first steady job. If it were not for partition—Pakistan separating from India in 1947—Hashim might have remained a local legend: the man who gave Bombay's No. 2 amateur a handicap of 50 points and still beat him. But when Pakistan became a member of the British Commonwealth, the new nation needed all the status symbols it could collect, including sports trophies. The Khans—a small tribe of ex-warriors in white shorts, piped shirts and sneakers, armed with rackets nine inches wide and balls weighing less than an ounce—were brought down from the hills and shipped overseas to conquer the kingdom of squash.
And so a saga began.
At the advanced age of 35, Hashim began the winner's record the Khans live by, which they seem to have been ordained at birth to continue. Hashim's dossier includes eight Scottish Open championships (in five of them cousin Azam was runner-up; in a sixth, nephew Mohibullah was) and seven British Opens. Hashim won in all the places where the sun never set on the Union Jack (including Australia and New Zealand), then kept on going. In 1954 he visited the U.S. for the first time. It took Hashim, and later the other Khans, just about a year to master the American version of the game. The English ball is softer—more squashable—and the English court larger. "In London," Hashim says, "you run more." And so in 1955, at the age of 40, he won the U.S. Professional championship. After reaching 45 he won three Canadian Open championships.
With his shaven head, large eyes and strong aquiline nose, Hashim—now 59 by his count, 60-plus by other people's—looks what he is: the patriarch of the family and the epic hero in the 20th-century history of squash. He is to his game what Bill Tilden is to tennis, Bobby Jones to golf, Babe Ruth to baseball. The difference is, he still lives, a flesh-and-blood monument. He has been described in the low-keyed pages of The New Yorker by Herbert Warren Wind, a man not given to hyperbole, as "the greatest athlete for his age the world has ever seen."
Father, uncle, patriarch—what an inspiration and what a burden! How Hashim, or rather the ghost of that small boy scuffling in the Peshawar moonlight, must haunt the second-generation Khans. God is not dead. He is alive and the pro at the Denver Athletic Club.
"Back...front...left...right...always running, stroking, running." Will the game of Hashim vs. Hashim never stop and let the other Khans rest? For instance Mohibullah, Hashim's nephew, pro for the past 11 years at the Harvard Club of Boston.
"Mo" Khan, now 36, is a brilliant study in adaptation without surrender to an atmosphere that can overwhelm even native-born Americans: the Ivy League ambience. If Harvard men thought you would believe them, they would claim the red lines on squash courts as their college colors. Dark wood paneling, crimson carpeting and maroon leather sofas surround a Harvard Club squash player with the style he is accustomed to as he strolls toward his match. Even the primly framed signs (NO DRINKING GLASSES BEYOND THIS POINT) seem to instruct with a Harvard accent.
Mo Khan manages to fit into all this as if it were a stage setting especially designed for him. He is a short, stocky, agreeable man with the look of a Pakistani Rod Steiger. His eyes give the impression of missing nothing. He moves quickly, carelessly. There is a royal ease to Mo, but it is the air of a perennial prince regent rather than a king. He has accepted the assigned duty of the Khan dynasty, gracefully but with a hint of concealed rebellion.
Uncle Hashim has said Mo possesses the largest repertoire of shots of any Khan. Cousin Sharif marvels over Mo's touch ("The best of anybody"). Mo won his first major title, the Scottish Open, before he was 20. Now at the age when Hashim was just beginning, he says to his uncle, only half joking, "Gee, Uncle Hashim, when are you going to retire so the rest of us can?"
Mo may never have wanted to pay the price to be another Hashim. He likes, he says a bit defiantly, "a good time." What he means is: There is more to life than squash—the ultimate Khan heresy. But can he say it as long as Uncle Hashim lives?
At the distance of a 10-minute jog from Mo, his younger brother Gul, 25, works as pro at the University Club of Boston. In the round-robin at Bethlehem, Pa. last January, Gul defeated his cousin Sharif in a 2½-hour match—the first time Sharif had been beaten in a tournament in four years.
"Gul could be the greatest Khan of them all," one veteran squash pro says, "if he could manage the personal discipline." A member of the Playboy Club, Gul is appealingly innocent about his pursuit of la dolce vita. He belongs to the generation that was Americanized practically in the cradle. At the University of Karachi he played drums in a rock group and knew all there was to learn about Western civilization from cowboy movies and James Bond. Gul delights in money and what it buys. "Lovely, Oh Lord, this fleeting world," wrote Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan's most famous poet. These swinging and generous-hearted words ought to be embroidered on Gul's T shirt.
If Mo represents the second-generation past and Gul represents, possibly, the second-generation future, Sharif is the reigning Khan of the moment.
At 5'9" and 155 pounds he is taller and slimmer than his father Hashim and his cousins Mo and Gul. But more than any of the second-generation Khans, he has inherited Hashim's sense of a calling. "Squash," he says, "is a way of life to me, almost a religion—though a religion I don't intend to get obsessed with."
Sharif's will to win, a quieter version of Hashim's ebullient competitiveness, may be traced to a scene comparable to that featuring his father at eight on the road to Peshawar. At 11, knowing no English, only Pakhtu, Sharif was placed in that institution even Englishmen have trouble surviving: a British public school. "He cries for a long time in this school," his father admitted. Here, presumably, as on the courts at Peshawar, another young Khan learned that an outsider does not survive by surviving, but by winning. Before he finished school, Sharif had won the British Junior Amateur championship twice.
Pushing 30, Sharif believes he is slowing. But he is still faster than everybody else. If he has a weakness it may be a tendency to let down, almost from disappointment, when an opponent fails to keep up with him.
There are more Khans—among them Sharif's younger brother Aziz, 23. (Hashim is a patriarch in every sense of the word; he sired 11 children.) Aziz succeeded his father as the pro at Detroit's Uptown Athletic Club and then moved on to the Mississauga Racquet Club in Toronto. "He plays a beautiful game," in the words of an admiring fellow pro who, as a true buff, scores his sport in terms of esthetics as well as points. Alas, Aziz simply can't take squash as seriously as Hashim. Who could?
Yet the second-generation Khans are their fathers' sons. Scattered across the continent, divided by generations and gaps within generations, varied in lifestyles, the Khans retain their family identity on the squash court and reserve a special kind of game for one another.
Against non-Khans, the Khans open up the whole bag of tricks, from lobs to drop shots, dazzling the enemy out of its socks. But how can a Khan con a Khan? Against another Khan, the rule is to play "tight squash"—alley shots executed over the opponent-Khan's shoulder, around his back, under his legs.
There is a suspicion that the Khans are capable of staging elitist scenarios among themselves. One fellow pro says: "In the days when British prestige was still the prestige, Hashim won the English tournaments, Roshan monopolized the Canadian tournaments and Mo had a mysterious way of always winning in Scotland. It was as if they divided up the squash world into ruling territories."
In 1960, the tale goes, when Hashim and Mo were playing in the final of the Canadian Open, a pool was organized. The winner would receive $250. The object: to guess the total point score. Arthur Sonneborn, a Detroit businessman, told his very good friends, the Khans, that he held the number 174. When the match was over—you guessed it—the total was 174 points on the nose.
Has such lordly toying ever been possible at championship levels in any other sport—such deliberate, even insulting scripting of myths during the heat of battle? Needless to say, it is always open season on the Khans. And somebody invariably thinks he has discovered the secret weapon with which to defeat them, most recently Victor Niederhoffer, the No. 1 American amateur. A Harvard graduate and self-styled "student of capitalism" whose hobby is collecting mechanical banks, Niederhoffer is a blunt, even abrasive, man who predicted he would beat Sharif in the latest North American Open. "I'm pretty tough," was the way he put it. "I don't think he is as tough as I am." While Vic was aiming at Sharif, a non-Khan ambushed him on the way to the finals, thus illustrating another Niederhoffer saying: "Squash teaches you the virtue of persistence."
How do the Khans win? And win. And win. Everybody, including the Khans, seems to have a different theory. One Khan watcher explains: slow heartbeats. Another says: high altitude. When a lowland American pants, Khan mountain lungs remain full.
Hashim has a notion that when you begin squash young enough (the starting age for a Khan is around eight) the mechanics of the strokes, the strategies of the game become second nature. "I hit the ball to one spot maybe 100, 200 times," he says. "After a while it is like the court moves inside my head. I can close my eyes and see everything."
The Thinking Athlete is very much in vogue these days and the Khans are thinkers. Here is Mo: "It takes me eight or 10 minutes to figure out an opponent's game. If he wants it fast, I play slow. If he wants it slow, I play fast. If he likes the cross-court, I play alley shots." Hashim has confessed to lobbing into the lights when playing an opponent who wears glasses.
Sharif stresses patience. Americans, he explains, are inclined to go for the kill—the three-wall shot, the nick shot that must hit the corner dead on, or else. The Khans, he says, play a safer game, a retrieving game, a game of attrition. They wait for an opponent's mistake. They play American squash in the British style, depending upon what all Khans (and most opponents) believe to be their superior God-given stamina.
"Conditioning" is a mystique word among squash players. Niederhoffer says flatly of his sport: "It is too much conditioning." Yet he runs a couple of miles a day and puts himself through an ordeal of push-ups, sit-ups and special ankle exercises. Jonah Barrington, who has dominated the now Khan-less British game, carries conditioning to the point of fanaticism. He prepares for a tournament by retreating like a hermit to remote and preferably primitive corners of the British Isles. When he came down with hepatitis before a British Open, even more drastic measures seemed necessary. Barrington took himself to a tribal village in Kenya for six weeks, cooked over an open fire, slept in a straw hut and generally went native. After that there was absolutely nothing to beating the heck out of a little black ball, and everybody who tried to return it.
Despite their habit of running opponents into the floor—scores typically widen between Khan and loser as a match proceeds—the Khans go in for no such kill-or-cure training. In his how-to book, Hashim grudgingly recommends skipping rope, lifting weights, jogging upstairs and downstairs, adding almost in disbelief, "You want to do such things?" Sharif argues that one trains best for squash—or any game—by playing that game. He submits that his father, who can still run all day on a squash court, would fall on his face if he had to run a 100-yard dash.
Jim McQueenie, president of the North American Professional Squash Racquets Association, is an articulate man with a Scottish accent that still smacks magnificently of heather after 17 years in the States and Canada. He reasons that squash, like most sports, becomes predictable at the championship level. Experts do the expected—namely, the superb. But then there is the funny bounce or just-slightly missed placement, and squash enters, in McQueenie's phrase, the "realm of the unknown." At that point, genius will out. The champion will declare himself with the inspired, the spontaneously right shot.
In this split second of opportunity, this winner's moment at which the Khans so excel, is it slower heart, bigger lungs, Napoleonic strategy, better-conditioned reflexes that make the difference? Or something else?
Here other words apply, like "pride" and "determination." How bland they sound, these clichés of desire off a Wheaties package. Yet they cannot be ignored as the deciding factor, even on the Ivy League squash court. And can an American, even a hungry American, know what it means to an 8-year-old Pakistani boy to scramble as if his life depended on it, to get every ball—to win? Nobody beats a Khan except a Khan. The words seem to blaze out of Khan eyes like an oath taken in infancy.
In a sporting world where a woman golfer may win a first prize of $32,000, a Khan's first prize goes no higher than $1,000. It usually is a lot lower. And in a sporting world where the five-year, $1 million contract has become such a commonplace that it hardly rates a headline, a Khan may make only $18,000 to $22,000 a year from lessons, exhibitions and sales in his pro shop. It seems this sport of consummate skills pays rewards in almost inverse proportions to its demands.
Will the Khans and their game ever become more than a minority taste—the tiniest of pops in the Great Sports Explosion? There are two theories on the proper care and cultivation of squash, one counting on more spectators, the other on more participants. Members of the spectator school of thought point to tennis, another underprivileged racket sport only a decade ago, now turning out millionaires thanks to what is known as exposure. The trouble is, squash isn't exactly a coliseum game. Most galleries accommodate 50 to 100 people—other squash players chiefly.
A few galleries, like those at the new $1.5 million Toronto Squash Club, can seat up to 500 spectators. Glass back walls are being introduced for the benefit of that most successful of sports evangelists, the television camera. But 500 spectators hardly constitute a mass audience, and as for that other audience in the living rooms with the beer cans and the loungers at the recline: stand by for technical difficulties. When it comes down to a 21-inch screen, a tiny squash ball traveling more than 100 mph proves to be about as photogenic as a bullet.
The dreamers of a squash revolution-by-participation hit you with statistics. There are about 5,000 squash courts in the country, Darwin P. Kingsley III, president of the United States Squash Racquets Association, estimates. This is roughly double the figure of 10 years ago. The rule of thumb says: 100 players to a court; thus, half a million squash-playing Americans. Undaunted by the fact that 14 times as many Americans practice bird watching (according to the Bureau of Census), the USSRA advertises: "Squash racquets is for lovers, and women, and athletes, and old people, and young people, and just about everyone."
The participation theorists are also optimistic about new unit-construction techniques for squash courts. Formerly 2,000 pieces of edge-grain maple had to be nailed into place, then sanded and made true. Today 12 to 60 components can be fabricated into a court at a cost of about $25,000. But even where courts exist, Americans tend to prefer racquet-ball or handball. And then there is always indoor tennis. As Niederhoffer says, "It seems as though people would much rather spend $15 an hour for tennis than pay $5 to $7 an hour for squash."
Perhaps in some essential way squash is a sport not of this age: the era of the expansion-upon-expansion league, the zoom lens, the Big Hype. Squash is to sports what string quartets are to music. You can't go Wagnerian with either. The men who want squash to grow, to explode on the scale of the '60s and the '70s, know that what they love about the game forbids it.
Squash will never make it to the Astrodome. It is a game that concentrates rather than expands, moves inward rather than outward. No arena of competition is more strictly defined than a squash court: four sides, a floor, a ceiling. A little white box, like the setting of a Michelangelo Antonioni movie. Listen—strange echoes! Sound in a squash court cannot be trusted. A laugh has volume but no mirth. The human voice doesn't seem quite human.
There are sports that are wreathed in a kind of mysticism: long-distance running, sculling, mountain climbing. Squash is one of them. A good squash player, a really good squash player, a Khan, reaches a state the hacker can appreciate only at second-hand. When a superbly conditioned man of exceptional natural gifts is on form, then, in the words of Jim McQueenie, "the blood sings."
There is a term applied by connoisseurs of Sanskrit poetry: rasa. The literal meaning is "flavor." But scholars fumbling after deeper meanings have come up with "ideal and impersonalized joy."
You are in that little white box. You are a Khan. If you know your Kipling, the lines might pass through your mind as you are in the process of burying still another white hope:
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: 'A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.'
But finally you are not playing against an opponent. You are playing against yourself, against your limits. Body, racket and ball vs. mortality.
Outside there is a corridor. At the end of the corridor there is an attendant, dozing over a stack of towels, breathing the faintly disinfected air. Up the stairs behind him there is a street swarming with people and flanked by other streets swarming with other people, as far as the eye can see. And, of course, a lot further.
The point is, for the moment the universe is reduced to a ball and you in a box. Back...front...left...right...always running, stroking, running." Suddenly you go one notch beyond yourself and make the ball do something perhaps no man has ever made a ball do before. And that is rasa. And that is what it means to be a Khan.