Hashim Khan prior to the 1951 British Open, squash’s most celebrated tournament. Credit Central Press/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
Article Courtesy of The New York Times by William Yardley
Hashim Khan, who learned to play squash when he was a boy, retrieving stray balls for British military officers in Pakistan, and went on to become a champion and the patriarch of a family dynasty in the sport, died on Monday in Denver. He was believed to be 100.
His death was confirmed by his son Mohammad.
Pakistan was not yet an independent nation when Khan began working as a ball boy at a British officers’ club near Peshawar where his father, Abdullah, was the head steward. When he was not fetching balls hit over walls — courts used to be roofless — young Hashim watched game after game.
When the officers cleared the courts, he went out to practice, barefoot. Sometimes he traded his lunch for lessons. The hard work eventually got him a job teaching squash at the club and led to the belated break that made him a star.
He was in his 30s and a national champion in his homeland when a player he regularly defeated, Abdul Bari of Bombay, made it to the final of squash’s British Open. Khan had not played internationally, but Bari’s success prompted Khan’s supporters to raise money to send him to the tournament in 1951. There were concerns that he was too old, but with Pakistan having just become independent from India, it was a matter of national pride.
Khan in 2007. Credit Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
He was at least 36 — and possibly several years older — when he played for the first time in the Open, squash’s most celebrated tournament. Khan made an impressive debut, vanquishing an array of international stars on his way to the final, where he defeated the man presumed to be world’s best player, the four-time champion Mahmoud Karim of Egypt, 9-5, 9-0, 9-0.
Khan won the Open for six straight years. In 1956, he defeated his cousin Roshan in the final. Roshan was 26 at the time. Khan was in his 40s.
The next year, he lost to Roshan in the final. Although it was a defeat for Khan, it enhanced his family’s fame.
After Khan won again in 1958, defeating his younger brother Azam, other family members began winning the tournament — first Azam; then a nephew, Mohibullah; and then, a generation later, Khan’s cousin Jahangir, who won 10 straight titles beginning in 1982. Of the 41 British Opens played from 1951 to 1991, a member of the Khan family won the tournament 23 times, often defeating another Khan in the final.
In 1961, Hashim Khan was recruited to move to the United States, where he spent the second half of his life teaching at squash clubs, first in Detroit and later in Denver. The American game was somewhat different — with a harder ball and a smaller court — but he continued to win tournaments, usually defeating players a decade or two younger.
He was known for wearing down opponents by relentlessly returning their every shot — and for appearing never to sweat. In a 1962 interview with Sports Illustrated, Khan assessed the strengths of some of his family members, as well as his own.
“Azam is having best drop shot,” he said. “Mohibullah has biggest variety of shotmaking and hits hardest ball. Azam has most determination to win. Hashim has thinking and experience.”
Khan continued: “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 court, Hashim hits ball all the time very close to wall.”
He said: “Against player wearing glasses, Hashim gives many high shots, which he has difficulty seeing because of light overhead. When Hashim teaches, he emphasizes thinking.”
Khan was born in Peshawar, the oldest of four children. His father died in a car accident when he was a boy. Khan’s date of birth is not certain, but his family celebrated his 100th birthday on July 1 this year.
In addition to Mohammad, his survivors include six other sons, Sharif, Aziz, Charlie, Sam, Shaukat and Gulmast; four daughters, Nosha Hopkins, Yasmin Ryan, and Subby and Rahmania Khan; several dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and his brother Azam. His wife of more than 65 years, the former Mehria Bugum, died in 2007.
Sam Khan said on Wednesday that the family believed his father was probably several years older than he said he was.
“It’s wrapped in this shroud of mystery, but that also makes it a great story,” he said. “He comes from a part of the world that nobody had ever heard of. Here’s a guy who never really knew how great he was, and by some miracle he got to show the world his skills.”