Jahangir Khan is the greatest squash player in history.
Squash is a racket sport played in a four-walled court with a small, hollow rubber ball. Formerly called squash rackets, squash is in reference to the more squashable ball as compared with the harder ball used in rackets. Usually played by two [singles] and occasionally by four [doubles] players, contestants must alternate in striking the ball with their racket onto the playable surfaces of the four walls of the court. Unlike tennis, there is no net. Squash was invented around 1830 at Harrow School, an independent school for boys in London. The game spread to other schools, eventually becoming an international sport. The North American version of squash, sometimes referred to as the “American version,” uses a harder rubber ball which plays faster and on a smaller court than the British version, which today is usually referred to as “international” or “softball” squash. Play begins with one contestant serving to his opponent, which begins a rally. The winner of the rally collects one point, regardless of which player served. Games are played to eleven—and must be won by two—with matches being best of five games.
Pakistan dominated world squash for five decades, and Jahangir Khan comes from a squash family. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, December 10, 1963, he was a frail child, so doctors recommended he avoid physical activity. “I was told I would never become world champion,” recalled Khan. “I was the youngest, smallest, feeblest and sickest of the family. Neither my father or the doctor believed there was any chance for me to become a good squash player.” Roshan Khan—winner of the 1957 British Open Squash Championships—ignored the doctor’s advice and taught his youngest son the game. Jahangir was coached by his brother Torsam, who was an accomplished international player. In 1979, after being passed over by Pakistani officials for the World Championships in Australia, Khan registered for the World Amateur individual championship and, at 15, became the youngest winner in history. After 27-year-old Torsam Khan died of cardiac arrest while playing in a tournament later that year, Jahangir dedicated himself to the sport as a tribute to his older brother. In 1981, 17-year-old Jahangir Khan beat Australia’s Geoff Hunt—the game’s most dominant player in the late 1970s—in the final of the World Open. It marked the start of an unbeaten run which lasted nearly six years and 555 matches.
Squash is a high-paced game with long rallies—often 100 shots or more—with few breaks between points. The game provides an excellent cardio-vascular workout, as one hour of squash may burn up to 1,000 calories. In 2003, Forbes rated squash as the healthiest sport to play. Khan’s technique was second to none and he possessed a superb understanding of the game, but his greatest weapon was his fitness. He was not only the fittest player in the sport, he was possibly the fittest man on the planet. Khan trained eight hours a day, six days a week. He started his daily regimen with a nine mile run, followed by 400 meter dashes separated with one minute of rest. He would continue until exhaustion, often training in the high altitude in northern Pakistan, then finish with court sprints and racket drills. Considered an “attritional” squash player, Khan played a high-paced game that utilized hard-hit shots and footspeed designed to wear opponents down.
The British Open Squash Championships is the oldest and most established tournament in the game. First held in 1929, it is often referred to as the “Wimbledon of squash.” The British Open and World Open are the sport’s two most important championships. Beginning in 1982,“The Conqueror” won the British Open for a record ten straight years and was a six-time World Open champion, more than any player in history. He was the first player to win an Open championship without dropping a game and played the second longest match in history, earning a victory after two hours and 46 minutes of play. Khan was unbeaten from April 1981 to November 1986, when he finally lost to New Zealand’s Ross Norman. “The pressure began to mount as I kept winning every time and people were anxious to see if I could be beaten. Ross got me.” Khan’s streak lasted exactly five years and eight months. Put another way, he won 555 matches in 2,065 days without losing, meaning he won a squash match every 3.75 days for over half a decade. After losing to Ross, Mr. Khan went unbeaten for another nine months.
Between 1983 and 1986, The Conqueror decided to test his abilities on the North American hardball squash circuit. He played in 13 top-level tournaments and won 12. Khan beat America’s top player, Mark Talbott eleven times—all in finals—and won ten of them, cementing his reputation as the world’s greatest squash player. His success in North America led to the growing interest in the “softball” version of squash internationally and the demise of the hardball game, which is now rarely played. Mr. Khan retired as a player in 1993 and served as president of the World Squash Federation from 2002 to 2008.