Excerpt from The Sheriff of Squash: The Life and Times of Sharif Khan


The summer of 1980 was a momentous time for professional squash in North America, as an official tour, which had been discussed ever since the Globe & Mail article three years earlier, was finally scheduled for the upcoming 1980-81 season, due largely to the promotional efforts of WPSA President Caldwell, who from the outset of his Presidency two years earlier had made it a stated priority to establish a viable professional tour as the “Window Of The Sport”,  and Bob French, a Canadian-born Xerox salesman who had been dabbling in the promotion of squash for several years. Remarkably, as a result of their unrelenting efforts there were 20 singles (and two doubles) tournaments on the 1980-81 schedule, a combination of returning events along with nearly a dozen new sites in places like Toledo, Atlantic City, Cleveland, Kitchener (a suburb of Toronto), Washington, San Francisco, Detroit, Minnesota and even Guatemala City. An impressive WPSA Pro Tour Program, prominently including a full-page ad in which Slazenger promoted the Sharif Khan racquet (an endorsement that had been arranged by the well-known sports marketing firm IMG in the late-1970’s and that lasted into the early-1990’s), was disseminated at every WPSA tour site, containing player profiles, historical information and lengthy feature pieces as part of an emphatic message that professional squash had officially arrived in North America.

   This major expansion, which included the establishment of an office in downtown Toronto and the hiring of several staff members to run it, was due to a confluence of additional intertwined events, among them the growing number of contending players, the degree to which squash as a whole was flourishing during this late-1970’s/early-1980’s time frame, the rapidly increasing number of commercial clubs, five of which would be hosting new sites that season, the presence of the monthly publication Squash News (which began in January 1978) and the willingness of several squash-related businesses (including Spalding, a manufacturer of squash racquets and equipment, Merco-Seamco, maker of the official ball of the tour, and the Bata Corporation, which produced squash clothing and accessories) to become involved as official sponsors of the tour. Chief among the reasons spurring the formation of this tour as well was the popularity of and admiration for Sharif Khan, who throughout the mid-and late-1970’s had constantly played in every tournament and exhibition match he could, even those with low purses, on the theory that the more he appeared, the more he could promote and raise the profile of the game. Just as Barrington is rightly credited with having brought the international game from the amateur to the professional level with his own career, his administrative work and his tireless promotion, including the Circus and other tours which attracted corporate sponsors to the game, so Sharif filled a similar vital role in elevating the North American hardball game to the professional entity it became during the early-1980’s.

    Interestingly, although to a large extent the arrival of a legitimate tour was a by-product of and hence a tribute to Sharif’s tireless decade-long promotional efforts, and although he agreed to serve as a member of the newly-forming WPSA Tour Committee, he viewed these developments with a mixture of both anticipation and also trepidation. The whole scenario was rife with conflicts of interest --- as one of several significant examples, the newly-installed WPSA Tour Commissioner French had operated as President Caldwell’s agent for the previous few years --- and Sharif was aware that a number of his money-making opportunities, like the paid exhibition matches that he sometimes arranged with the Tournament Chairs to play at a host club in the day or two prior to the start of a pro event, might be imperiled by the ground rules established by the new governing body.

   The inaugural 1980-81 tour itself (of which Hashim was named its Honorary Chairman) was immensely eventful and exciting, with five different tournament winners (Tom Page, Stu Goldstein, Sharif, Michael Desaulniers and Clive Caldwell) having emerged even before Christmas, beginning right with the opening event at the Ringe Courts, where Page rocked the squash world with consecutive wins over Aziz Khan, Sanchez, Sharif and Caldwell to record his first and only WPSA career ranking-tournament singles title. At the next stop in Rochester, he let a triple-match-point get away and lost, 18-17 in the fifth, in the semis to Sanchez. In the draw’s top half, a rejuvenated Goldstein won consecutive five-game matches vs. Desaulniers and Sharif, then out-played Sanchez 3-0 in the final. Sharif then won three straight tournaments --- in Kitchener, Cleveland and Montreal --- lost a simultaneous-match-ball Boston Open quarterfinal to Mark Alger (who would win the U. S. Nationals a few months later) on a bad tin on the final exchange, but then took three of the next four events.

  However, when the tour resumed shortly after the Christmas holiday break, Desaulniers erupted on a red-hot streak that lasted for several months, including throughout what appeared to be a permanently defining stretch of the season and of the state going forward of the WPSA pecking order as a whole that occurred during the first 16 days of February on consecutive weekends in the mid-west. Having previously dealt in tactical weaponry and psychological warfare during his recent-years rivalry with Niederhoffer, the issue for Sharif in attempting to cope with the Desaulniers challenge at this stage of their respective careers was more one of physical survival. Michael’s blinding speed, hyperactive personality and relentless attacking style enabled him to create an energy zone that caused meltdowns in his opposition. Playing an entire match at his pace was akin to playing basketball against a full-court press or perhaps tending goal against a two-man power play in hockey. Though Sharif himself for most of his career had thrived on picking up the pace, it must be remembered that Desaulniers was 23 when he turned pro in the spring of 1980, while Sharif, even by his own at-the-time undocumented admission, was right on the cusp of his 35th birthday as the decade of the 1980’s began.

   If this chronological disparity brought understandable stamina and firepower advantages to the young Canadian superstar, its true influence upon the character of their burgeoning rivalry lies more significantly in the deeper issues it raised between the two athletes and for the viewing squash audience. For in the inevitability of the impending and fast-approaching Desaulniers takeover, Sharif was forced at last to deal head-on with the terror that lurks behind the dream of becoming an elite professional athlete, the terror that accompanies the frightening unknowns which the end brings. In a way, it is the fate of the champion athlete, like that of the heroic warrior, to receive rewards and applause simultaneously with the means of their own destruction. What both must eventually confront is the other, darker side of the Faustian bargain; an accelerating awareness that he must live out all the rest of his days knowing that he can never recapture the exhilaration of those fleeting years of intensified youth. It is a powerful augury of the larger mortality that eventually claims us all. And throughout the winter of 1981 Desaulniers mercilessly hammered this painful point home to his valiant adversary with a ruthless finality that no one before him had ever been able to match.

   During the first half of February, the pair met in the finals of three tournaments in as many weekends --- Minnesota, Toronto and Detroit --- with Desaulniers winning first in a fifth-game overtime (18-16), then in a regulation fifth game (15-10) and finally 15-10 in the fourth, his margin of victory slightly expanding with each successful salvo. The middle of these was the most important, both for bringing Desaulniers his first (and only) WPSA Championship and for the exact statistical deadlock that existed in the rankings coming into the tournament. Desaulniers would thus leave Sharif’s home city in possession of both this major title and the No. 1 ranking position, which Sharif, incredibly, had held uninterrupted ever since the end of the 1968-69 season, a period of almost 12 years!

   Desaulniers, who would consolidate his lead both the following week in Detroit and one month later in San Francisco, was on his way to the first of two Player Of The Year Awards. But Sharif, even though slightly past his prime by then, was one of the few who grasped the fact that the same full throttle that impelled Michael’s game could also be made to imperil it, in the form of tinny patches and impetuous shot selection against a slower pace. He played with such furious intensity that he sometimes burned himself out, in contrast to Sharif, who possessed a unique ability to ramp up the pace while still being relaxed enough to “regulate” his aggressiveness and avoid exhausting his energy supply. Several other players, most notably the methodical, rock-solid veteran Caldwell, also spotted this vulnerability on Desaulniers’s part, which that spring contributed to a brief slump and enabled Sharif with a strong spring-time surge to come away with yet another North American Open title as well as the top season-end ranking, both for the final time. The seeds for Sharif’s 12th Open crown in 13 years may have been sown the prior weekend at the inaugural Washington DC Boodles Gin Open, held at the brand-new Capitol Hill Squash Club, where WPSA tour rookie Mark Talbott pulled off the most noteworthy performance of the season with a quartet of wins over, sequentially, Caldwell, Goldstein, Desaulniers and Sharif to win the tournament.

   Clearly rattled by his unexpected semifinal loss in Washington, Desaulniers was knocked off, in straight sets no less, in the quarterfinals of the North American Open at the Toronto Squash Club by Sharif’s immensely talented younger brother Aziz, who then capped off the best day of his career by out-lasting Goldstein in five games in the semis (the fifth straight five-game loss that Goldstein sustained in this tournament), creating a brother-vs.-brother final which Sharif (who had defeated Anderson in the bottom-half semi) dominated from start to finish. It was his sixth straight triumph in this premier tournament in hardball squash, over his sixth different final-round opponent during that span (Niederhoffer in ’76, Hunt in ’77, Caldwell in ’78, Anderson in ’79, Desaulniers in ’80 and Aziz in ’81), a graphic tribute in its own right to the magnitude of Sharif’s accomplishment.

   As it happens, Aziz’s wife at the time, Debbie Van Kiekebelt, a gold-medalist in the pentathlon at both the 1971 Pan American Games and the 1972 Olympic Games who was named Canadian Woman Athlete Of The Year for 1972 and later became Canada’s first female sports broadcaster, had been hired to announce the final along with a squash aficionado. The broadcast became a bit awkward as the score grew in Sharif’s favor and towards the end she became increasingly critical of Sharif’s forcefully aggressive play against her husband.

  Prior to the start of play that weekend the Tournament Committee, chaired by long-time squash aficionado Dave Hetherington, contacted the Estate of Ned Bigelow, a legendary American squash benefactor who had donated a silver cigar box as the permanent trophy when this event began in 1954, to ask it’s permission to “retire” the trophy and present it to Sharif if he won to commemorate his having earned a dozen titles. The Committee offered to purchase another permanent trophy to replace the one that it would be giving to Sharif. There was some controversy --- a few USSRA “purists” who disliked the Khan family, disliked the pros and felt that squash should remain as lily-white and amateur-oriented as possible, argued that Mr. Bigelow “would be turning in his grave” and lobbied as strenuously as possible to prevent this gesture from being authorized, even warning without any basis that Sharif would sell the cigar box for profit if it were entrusted to him --- but ultimately permission was granted by the Estate and the cigar box continues to have an honored place in Sharif’s suburban-Toronto home.


   Back in my stride, January ’76, I down Niederhoffer 3 games to nil  right in his home town in New York City. Then 1977 through 1981 a North American victory and title each year, even though the hounds are always at the door and this aging body is feeling the ravages of time ticking much more than my opponents are allowed to see.   Every year it’s a new challenger, the ‘new kid on the block’.    Surely this will be the end of Sharif’s glory days, but I do not concede easily. In late ’76 as the New Year approaches, I am only too aware of the formidable opponent on the horizon in Australia’s Geoff Hunt.  Hunt has been making cannon fodder of all and sundry on the North American scene.  Champion of the international softball game, he is superbly fit and has a range of racquet and mobility skills to match.  His aim is to beat us at hardball and etch the superiority of the international game into his belt as winner of the North American Open. This is constantly on my mind in late ’76 and I go to Denver and some of the south western states to train like I haven’t trained since the Barrington Circus.  My strategy is ‘fitness is king’.  I am like Ali training in Pennsylvania in his prime, everything is geared to the January bout in Philadelphia.

    Having reached the finals, I am tired but pleasantly surprised that I am up two games to one in the fourth and I have a commanding lead in what can be the match winner. “Send him back to Australia with one photo finish shot” that’s my mantra.“Send him back to Australia with the hardball up his ass!” that’s my disparaging mental frame.”Let him remember this shot for now and for all time” I am riding my victory over the finish line even before it’s won. But that three wall nick just wouldn’t materialize.  Each time I played the shot Hunt was right there to pick it up…impossible I thought.  Can you imagine my stubbornness to keep playing that shot as his score grew perilously close to a tie…..then ‘possible’ game and if then a fifth game to follow.. all bets are off.  Have you ever seen a perfect tennis shot, a perfect golf hole in one, a perfect race run?  That beautiful ball hit the three walls, the nick and rolled finally out of play along the floor for 15-13 and my win.   At no time have I ever been so mesmerized by my own shot, nor have I ever been so puerile and thick-headed to stick with it.

    Of course many other matches are memorable in that six-year sequence, during which I was matched with great and hungry opponents in Michael Desaulniers from Montreal, my arch-nemesis Clive Caldwell of Toronto and the wonderful and affable Gord Anderson, also of Toronto.  But besides the Hunt match, the other that leaves such a lasting impression is 1981, versus brother Aziz Khan. To say this was history would be an understatement but, as siblings, don’t we all have history, good and bad, often well intentioned and sometimes mean spirited.     In any case, after plowing through the draw that North American tournament of 1981, it was clear that in the final match brother would be meeting brother on the field of battle. Add to that,  home town advantage for both of us, the anticipation of my twelfth title in thirteen years and arrangements made to retire the historical Bigelow trophy to me if I won, this final match had a great deal riding on it.  Names won’t be named and I doubt any involvement on the part of my brotherly opponent, but two calls came in suggesting that I consider a certain outcome in his favor.   The argument was that this may be his big chance to prove himself at this level, and that I had won enough of these titles to retire this one with satisfaction.  

“Can’t do that, I’ll lose graciously (well, somewhat graciously) if I lose, but he has to be ready to take it for himself because I’m not ready to concede yet.  That’s the way Hashim played it, that’s the way Mohibullah played it and that’s the way I’ll play it.” These titanic battles always end bittersweet, I came out the victor, sweet for me; whilst beating my brother, or my cousin, or my father felt much less satisfying.