Ahead of the climax of the PSA Dubai World Series Finals, the greatest player in the history of squash Jahangir Khan spoke exclusively to Sam Price about what the event has done to take the sport forward, and about the status he continues to enjoy in Dubai and around the world
Innovation and imagination have been at the heart of squash’s remarkable evolution over the past decade, with the decision to stage the prestigious PSA Dubai World Series Finals at an opera theatre just the latest example of forward thinking in the drive to attract new audiences to the sport.
But just as important as mapping out squash’s future is recognising its rich heritage, and the Dubai Opera crowd were in the presence of greatness during the latter stages of the event as the most successful and influential player to ever grace the court – Jahangir Khan – jetted in to share stories with fans and watch the action unfold.
The Pakistani legend completely dominated his peers in the 1980s and holds the record for the longest unbeaten run in any sport, having gone a sensational 555 matches undefeated after entering the 1981 World Open as a fresh-faced 17-year-old.
Now 53, this was Khan’s second successive appearance at squash’s season-finale, and he believes that Dubai’s patronage – as well as the magnificent new venue – are doing wonders for the sport’s profile.
“Last year, [the Finals] were played in an open area, but everyone was mentioning the shift to a new building – and it’s amazing,” he says.
“[Dubai Opera] is a fabulous venue. I’ve never seen a venue like this. It’s something unique for squash, and it’s wonderful to watch it up there in the gallery.”
Sitting atop the stage this week has been the state-of-the-art, pink-coloured ‘Z Court’ – a world away from the more sober variations that bore witness to Khan’s winning spree more than two decades ago – and the 10-time British Open champion admits that he is envious of the facilities now on offer to the stars of the professional tour.
“I feel it’s something we missed during my time,” he says. “I always had a dream to play a tournament in Dubai, but it never happened.
“This is a totally different era. And when I see all of the old players, we always discuss how amazing it would have been to play somewhere like [Dubai Opera].”
The Finals bring together the top eight men and women on the PSA World Series and this year’s edition has had a real ‘anyone-can-win’ quality to it, with upsets, comebacks and fluctuating best-of-three encounters. This reflects the current state of the tour, and Khan believes that despite Mohamed ElShorbagy’s 15-month reign at the top of the men’s world rankings, which ended this year, it is even more difficult to dominate the sport now than it was in his heyday, with a greater depth of players and a fuller calendar of events.
When I see all of the old players, we discuss how amazing it would have been to play somewhere like [Dubai Opera]
“Now, the players can dominate for three or six months, but I think that’s the longest they can do that, because there’s too much pressure on them,” he claims. “There is no permanent world no. 1; it’s changing hands a lot.
“Some records are quickly broken, but others take longer – and staying unbeaten for more than 555 matches is not going to be an easy one [to break]!”
The fact that no one has got close to his record ensure that Khan’s legacy endures, and the 53-year-old still commands significant fame in his own country and around the world, as evidenced by the scores of fans who recognise him and stop to ask for pictures during his visits to Dubai.
“When the name of squash comes up, my name comes with it,” he admits.
“It’s because of the achievements and all the records, and I personally feel it’s out of respect. It’s an honour for me that people still remember me in that way.
“I left squash in 1993, so it’s been almost 25 years and I never thought it would have carried on for this long!”
While Khan did indeed retire in 1993 – in glorious fashion by helping Pakistan win the World Team Championships (a title they have not won since) in his home city of Karachi – he has remained very close to the sport, serving as President of the World Squash Federation and Chairman of the PSA.
And now, with Pakistan having no players in the upper echelons of the rankings during an era of Egyptian dominance, he has set up his own academy to help the fallen giant rise from the ashes.
“When I retired from actively playing squash in 1993, I thought that since I’ve earned everything, I should give back to the game,” he says.
“Now, I’m heading squash in the Pakistani province of Sindh. We have a lot of good talent there, but [the players] are not putting in enough time, dedication or discipline, and we just need to persuade them that they can become a world champion if they follow the right steps.”
Recent improvements to the tour are gradually making squash a more attractive career for prodigious talents, but Khan still believes that it is Olympic inclusion – something he has been striving for in his various administrative roles over many years – that is needed to take the sport to the next level.
“A lot of people are surprised that [squash] is not part of the Olympics,” he says.
“But with the way we’re growing compared to other sports, and with the world-class set-up of tournaments like the PSA Dubai World Series Finals, I am sure that we will get there soon.”