Imagine that Rod Laver had a father, Big Rocket, an even better player than son at son's best. And a younger brother, too, Little Rocket, who could take Rod on the days when his first serve was not behaving. Oh yes, and an uncle, Old Smoothie Laver, an absolutely flawless stylist; he could kill you with finesse. To say nothing of a couple of wild, scrambling cousins known as The Great Laver Retrievers. Red hair flopping over the eyes—that sort of thing. They could outlast everybody, except, of course, their uncle, their father and Rod. The family, so our little fantasy goes, totally dominated world tennis from 1950 to the present.
The reader must allow only for understatement. Something very like this has happened in the far less publicized world of squash. For a quarter of a century squash racquets, the blue-blood sport of British Army officers and Ivy Leaguers, has been played by a Pakistani family named Khan as if it had invented the game. Seldom has success composed so monotonous a plot. Consider just the North American Open, squash's equivalent of Forest Hills. Since 1956 only two American players have managed to win the tournament: G. Diehl Mateer Jr. in 1959 and Ralph E. Howe in 1967. Otherwise the Khans have made the North American Open a closed affair. Only the first name changes: Hashim Khan (1956, 1957, 1963); Roshan Khan (1958, 1960, 1961); Azam Khan (1962); Mohibullah Khan (1964, 1965, 1966, 1968); Sharif Khan (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974).
How did this odd couple—American squash and Pakistani champions—get together? Like any proper Eastern legend, the story takes a bit of spinning. It starts half a century ago with a bright-eyed 8-year-old boy walking the two miles from his native village of Nawakille to Peshawar. Peshawar, a walled city with 16 gates situated about 40 miles from the Khyber Pass, is the capital of the old Northwest Frontier province, made famous by Rudyard Kipling and late-night movies like Gunga Din. In the old quarter, Pathan tribesmen, from whom the Khans are descended, still stroll the streets, wearing guns in their belts and flowers in their hair. In the British quarter in the 1920s there are lawns, parks, gravel walks—the little bit of England of Englishmen in exile. And, to be sure, the British officers' club with its bar, its billiard rooms, its lawn tennis and squash courts.
The January temperature in Peshawar averages around 50�. The annual rainfall is only about 15 inches. The squash courts of 50 years ago are uncovered. The walls are brick, coated by plaster. There are steps in the back wall. That 8-year-old boy, Hashim Khan, climbs these steps, perches on the wall, and sees his first squash. When a ball flies over the wall, the "British officers do not run out little back door," Hashim recalled over 40 years later in his charming as-told-to book, Squash Racquets: The Khan Game. "They stand and look up to smile at me." Thus the first and foremost of the Khans becomes a ball boy for five rupees a month—about SI.
Around five o'clock the officers repair to the showers and the bar. Hashim comes down off the wall and plays. When the moon is high and bright, he plays far into the evening: Hashim vs. Hashim. "I stand in back and stroke ball very soft to front. True, that other Hashim knows where ball is going, I cannot keep this secret from him. Still he runs like a hare to arrive before the second bounce. Ah, he succeeds!...back...front...left...right...always running, stroking, running."
With cheerful realism Hashim, fatherless at 11, commits himself to squash: "It is wrong to be here in this school, I think...Nothing here helps me. But on courts, I can learn, someday I can make money this way. Look at professionals. English officers give them a salary to teach them game that comes from England."
Marvelous and unpredictable were the ways of colonialism. Young Hashim made his living stringing rackets, renting himself out as playing partner—temporizing. He was 28 when he became the squash pro to the British Air Officers' mess in Peshawar, his first steady job. If it were not for partition—Pakistan separating from India in 1947—Hashim might have remained a local legend: the man who gave Bombay's No. 2 amateur a handicap of 50 points and still beat him. But when Pakistan became a member of the British Commonwealth, the new nation needed all the status symbols it could collect, including sports trophies. The Khans—a small tribe of ex-warriors in white shorts, piped shirts and sneakers, armed with rackets nine inches wide and balls weighing less than an ounce—were brought down from the hills and shipped overseas to conquer the kingdom of squash.
And so a saga began.
At the advanced age of 35, Hashim began the winner's record the Khans live by, which they seem to have been ordained at birth to continue. Hashim's dossier includes eight Scottish Open championships (in five of them cousin Azam was runner-up; in a sixth, nephew Mohibullah was) and seven British Opens. Hashim won in all the places where the sun never set on the Union Jack (including Australia and New Zealand), then kept on going. In 1954 he visited the U.S. for the first time. It took Hashim, and later the other Khans, just about a year to master the American version of the game. The English ball is softer—more squashable—and the English court larger. "In London," Hashim says, "you run more." And so in 1955, at the age of 40, he won the U.S. Professional championship. After reaching 45 he won three Canadian Open championships.
With his shaven head, large eyes and strong aquiline nose, Hashim—now 59 by his count, 60-plus by other people's—looks what he is: the patriarch of the family and the epic hero in the 20th-century history of squash. He is to his game what Bill Tilden is to tennis, Bobby Jones to golf, Babe Ruth to baseball. The difference is, he still lives, a flesh-and-blood monument. He has been described in the low-keyed pages of The New Yorker by Herbert Warren Wind, a man not given to hyperbole, as "the greatest athlete for his age the world has ever seen."