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Jahangir the Conqueror

Jahangir the Conqueror

Issue 84 September 2011

During the 1980s, Jahangir Khan dominated the international squash scene, and went on a five-year unbeaten run. Ali Khimji sits down with him to talk about his training, his rivalries, and his status as a legend in the game. 



One of the hottest debates between fans around the world is about who is the greatest player in a particular sport. Football supporters argue between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but older fans will favour the battle between Pele and Maradona. Whilst Roger Federer’s 16 Grand Slam tennis titles are unrivalled, Boris Becker’s victory at Wimbledon at the age of 17 has never been replicated. And with Michael Schumacher dominating Formula 1 during the 90s, he is now being trounced on a regular basis by Sebastian Vettel, a racer who watched Schumacher growing up.


With Jahangir Khan, it is a completely different story. From winning the 1981 World Open at the age of 17, to dominating the British Open for 10 consecutive years, and even making history by having one of the longest winning streaks by a professional athlete, here we can be confident that he is the greatest player in the history of squash.


Victory in competitive squash was already destined for Jahangir. His father, Roshan Khan, had won the British Open in 1957 and reached the final on two other occasions, as well as winning the US Open three times and the Canadian Open twice. Therefore, it was more of a question when his son would be taking up the racquet, not if. “I was eight years old when I started playing squash,” Jahangir explains. “Everyone in my family played and that’s the main reason that I was interested — it was very much like a family business.”


“Members of my family had already achieved a great deal in squash and I wanted to continue that legacy.” He did not have to wait long to have his first taste of success. In 1979, despite the Pakistani authorities preventing Jahangir from entering the World Open in Australia because he was still recovering from an illness, he entered himself into the World Amateur Individual Championship and won the competition at the age of 15.


However, tragedy struck Jahangir’s family the same year. His elder brother, Torsam, had been rising through the ranks of international squash and had reached a world ranking of 13, when he suffered a heart attack during a match in Australia and died suddenly. It was clear that Torsam’s untimely death affected Jahangir greatly. “I was extremely close to him and he had always encouraged me to play since my very early days. I had considered quitting the game, but I decided to continue playing and live out his dream. In the end, it gave me more strength to reach the heights that I did.”

In 1981, Jahangir made history by becoming the youngest player to win the World Open at the age of 17. He beat Geoff Hunt, who was one of the dominant squash players during the 70s. “I can’t really describe the feeling of winning the World Open. Of course, I was happy to win, and I felt very lucky to have achieved my dream.”


What Jahangir did not know was that the tournament would be the start of another landmark achievement, something that would have been beyond belief at the time. For the next five years following the 1981 World Open, Jahangir played 555 matches and maintained an unbeaten run the entire time. One of the main factors behind his phenomenal success was his incredible fitness level. “My training regime consisted of running, playing squash and exercising in the gym. I would cover 10 miles a day in short and long-distance running, and would train for seven to eight hours each day.” Through his endless energy supply, Jahangir would wear down opponents in matches through long rallies. It was also during this winning streak that Jahangir won the International Squash Players Association Championship in 1982, without losing a single point.


Jahangir also achieved an unrivalled record of winning the British Open 10 consecutive times between 1982 and 1991. “The British Open is like the Wimbledon of squash. It is the oldest, most competitive tournament in the sport, and it is every player’s dream to win it. My father had won it, and we are the only father and son to have achieved this feat.”


In the 1986 World Open Final, Jahangir’s five-year winning streak ended. He was beaten by Ross Norman, who for five years had vowed that, “one day Jahangir will be slightly off his game and I will get him.” Rather than see the loss as the beginning of his downfall, Jahangir had prepared for this outcome long ago. “I was never under any pressure from the winning streak; I knew that I would lose one day. It has to happen in all sport; in every game, one participant wins and the other loses.” He also went on to be unbeaten for a further nine months after his loss.


Jahangir also challenged himself to compete in the North American hardball squash tournaments. “I knew that I was able to do well in the softball game, so I wanted to see how well I could do on the other side.” Unsurprisingly, he won 12 of the 13 tournaments. With this, he could truly claim the accolade of being the world’s greatest squash player.


Towards the end of 1986, Jansher Khan, another Pakistani squash player, emerged on the scene. Jahangir won the first few encounters between the pair, but Jansher finally broke through to beat Jahangir in the semi-finals of the Hong Kong Open, and then went on to win the next eight matches as well as the 1987 World Open. Jahangir bounced back to defeat Jansher in the 1988 World Open final in straight sets. “A lot of people saw it as a bitter rivalry with Jansher, but that was far from the truth. It kept me motivated, as well as pushing me to train and work harder.” Over the next few years, the pair met 37 times in tournaments, with Jansher winning 19 matches and Jahangir 18. However, Jahangir took 79 games to Jansher’s 74.


Following his last match against Jansher in the 1993 World Open final, which Jansher won, Jahangir decided to retire. Jansher went on to dominate the international squash scene, winning the World Open a further three times and the British Open six consecutive times.


As expected, Jahangir could not stay away from the game for too long, and was elected Vice President of the World Squash Federation (WSF) in 1998. He went to become President of the WSF in 2002, and held the position for a maximum of two terms. He has recently appeared in the media to support the inclusion of squash as an Olympic event. “We tried to get it for the London 2012 games, but we missed out on a few votes. It is played at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, and it is every sportsman’s dream to participate in the Olympics, so it would bring a massive boost to the sport.”


In 2005, Time magazine named Jahangir as one of their Asian Heroes of the last 60 years, and the accompanying article read, “If winning is everything, then Khan is the greatest. Period.” His consistency is unmatched: he won six of the nine World Open finals he played in, and 10 of the 11 British Open finals. Although squash is not the most popular of the racquet sports, sports fans around the world will still respect his tremendous feat in the game. A loose translation of Jahangir’s name is The Conqueror, and it grew to be his nickname to fans, but it is clear that it is also the perfect way to describe his achievements: Jahangir conquered the game of squash. 

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