Virtuosity has often been on display on the stage of Manhattan's old Town Hall theater. Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill orated from its boards. Pianist Eubie Blake performed there, as did guitarist Andres Segovia. Now add racquetman Jahangir Khan, an elegant Pakistani who last week combined a virtuoso touch with lightning-quick legwork to win his second straight North American Open squash title.
A precocious artist of 21, Khan had Steve Bowditch swimming all around their glass-walled fishbowl of a court in the final. Khan won 15-4, 15-5, 17-15 in just 37 minutes. It was a strange scene: two athletes being viewed through Plexiglas by a Sunday matinee crowd of 950 as pro squash sought to shuck its old-school-blazer image and join the masses.
On hand to help with that effort was Guy Laroche, the head of Drakkar Noir, which is billed as a "modern, contemporary fragrance on the move." Pro squash smelled a big-time sponsor in Drakkar Noir, and it got Laroche in the bargain. The leather-suited Parisian expressed the hope that someone in the field could beat "Mr. Pakistani." So much for sponsor neutrality.
The tournament's early-round matches were played at private clubs in and around the city, an awkward trip down memory lane for modern, contemporary promoters on the move. Although anyone with a $7.50 ticket could take in the matches at the Park Avenue Squash and Racquet Club, men needed a necktie to watch at the Yale Club and a full membership to enter the University Club.
After the 64-man field was reduced to 16, play moved to the $100,000 court on the stage at Town Hall. The see-through court—the back wall and one side wall were Plexiglas—made it possible for more people to view the action than at traditional facilities. However, the court's width was 20 feet, close to the 21-foot width used in soft-ball squash, which is played everywhere but North America. Hard-ball courts, including those on which the first two rounds were played, are 18½ feet. The poo-bahs of pro squash are trying to bring about a more uniform court, but switching courts in mid-tourney wasn't smart. As the court was being assembled, Mark Talbott, who won the tournament in 1983, said, "It's gonna be weird."
Unfortunately for Talbott, when the going got weird the weird didn't get going. Talbott, who's known as much for his flightiness as for his nicks, had made the finals of all 17 pro tournaments this season. But his game took flight in his semifinal match with the ninth-seeded Bowditch, who won in five games after having upset third-seeded Mario Sanchez in the quarterfinals.
Bowditch, 29, is an Australian with a delicate sense of touch and an indelicate temperament, both of which he demonstrated after dropping the first two games to Sanchez. When he was granted only a let, not a point, for cutting short his stroke, he vowed, "I'll take his head off next time!" Perhaps moved by the theatrical setting, he appealed one call to the audience. "Cease and desist!" ordered Will Carlin from the chair. "They are not your judges." It's uncertain whether Bowditch is eligible for a Tony award.
In the final, Bowditch had the unenviable task of playing the defending champion, the latest of the illustrious Khans. The seven sons of Hashim Khan and their hordes of cousins and nephews have owned squash for the past three decades. The patriarch may have been the best player ever...or perhaps Sharif...or, maybe young Jahangir, who is the first player since Hashim to win the British and North American championships in the same year. He now has achieved that twice.
Jahangir showed early promise, and when his older brother died in 1979 at age 29 of a heart attack on the court, he threw himself into the game, doing rigorous aerobic drills every day and spending hours practicing. Earlier this season Khan beat Sanchez in the fifth game of a match, 15-0! "This will not hurt him," said Gul Khan after Jahangir prevailed in a five-game, 95-minute quarterfinal match on Saturday over sixth-seeded Tom Page. "Jahangir has the stamina."
In that night's semis he defeated fourth-seeded Ned Edwards 15-6, 15-7, 17-14. The British Open final had been played only four days earlier, and Khan was only now getting used to the hard ball. By Sunday he was at the top of his hard-ball game. Bowditch was sore from Saturday's exertions, but Khan didn't seem to be. "Jahangir was hitting the ball tight to the floor, and my legs just weren't moving," said Bowditch.
This tournament is 32 years old and has been won by Khans 25 times. "Jahangir" in Urdu means conqueror of the world. As far as squash goes, his first and last names mean the same thing.