The Great Sharif Khan Turns 75

photo Ontario Squash Hall of Fame

November 10, 2020

An excerpt from 'The Sheriff of Squash: The Life and Times of Sharif Khan' by Rob Dinerman and Karen Khan

Sharif would ultimately win all five of his matches with Niederhoffer during the 1975-86 season prior to dropping a four-game inaugural Boodles British Gin Open final at the Uptown Racquet Club on Manhattan’s upper east side in November ’76; these two titans would wind up meeting in the finals of every tournament they both entered between November ’74 and January ’77. Their extended double-domination would finally be punctured not through the exploits of some familiar North American protagonist but by the arrival from afar of the majestic Geoffrey Hunt, who after defeating Niederhoffer in the semis of the ’77 North American Open at the Ringe Courts on the University of Pennsylvania campus, would challenge Sharif in perhaps the single most historically significant match of Sharif’s entire career.

   After being out-lasted in both the 1970 and 1972 British Open finals by Barrington (in the latter case when exhaustion overwhelmed him to the point where, leading 7-4 in the fifth game, he yielded the last five gut-wrenching points), Hunt responded by making himself possibly the best conditioned athlete in the world and by the time the 1977 North American Open arrived he was well along in a run of British Open crowns that would not end until 1981, when Hunt would rally from a large fourth-game deficit to gain his eighth and last British Open title. This final hurrah would break both Barrington’s tally of six and Hashim’s putatively unapproachable mark of seven --- a touchy subject for the Khan clan to acknowledge even to this day --- and came at the expense of a precocious teenager named Jahangir Khan, who the following year would begin a string of British Open wins of his own that extended all the way through 1991.

   In any event, Hunt made an extremely swift adjustment to the North American game. He won the William White Invitational at the Merion Cricket Club over Michael Desaulniers in early January, then progressively picked up steam in burying Phil Mohtadi and Clive Caldwell to reach the semis of the Open. Niederhoffer stayed with Hunt through three games, but when Hunt eked out the third 15-13 to go up two games to one, Victor was gone as the fourth went swiftly to Hunt. Upon learning of Hunt’s upcoming appearance, Sharif had immediately and uncharacteristically headed to Denver, where under Hashim’s watchful eye he trained for several rigorous weeks at the Denver Athletic Club (where Hashim had moved his family from Detroit eight years earlier, in part to escape Michigan’s harsh winters, which were hard on his wife’s health) and outdoors in the high altitude. He accurately foresaw the threat that the superbly proportioned Hunt represented, both within the relatively limited framework of an individual squash match and, much more importantly, in the global perspective within which their possibly imminent final-round clash would be interpreted.

   For in a very real sense, and cruelly unfair though it might be, Sharif realized that he would be defending not only his title but his entire career record as well. If Hunt, who had never lost to Sharif in their few softball confrontations, could now defeat him on his own turf as well, a severe blow would be dealt both to the collective pride of the North American squash community and to the respectability that Sharif had by this time painstakingly accumulated during nearly an entire decade of heroic accomplishment. His fairly brief time as the squash pro at the Skyline Club, as noted, had come to an end seven years earlier when he had stayed away several weeks longer than had been authorized while on tour, and throughout the decade of the 1970’s his sole source of income had been from tournament winnings and the exhibition matches and clinics he had been able to schedule, which he kept track of with a large calendar on which he would manually log the various commitments he had made. He traveled to all parts of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Central America. It was important that he excel, that he entertain (which the Barrington Circus had abundantly prepared him to do) and that he keep winning; every exhibition, personal appearance and endorsement was important financially.

  So was his standing as the best hardball squash player in the world, which he took into the main exhibition court at Ringe on the afternoon of January 16, 1977, after barely fending off a strong semifinal challenge one day earlier from an exuberant Philadelphia-born Princeton sophomore named Tommy Page, who had ridden the crest of several upset wins and the cheers of his hometown supporters to lead Sharif 9-8 in the fifth game before a late Sharif charge to 15-11. By this stage of his career, partly at Hashim’s urging and partly as well out of the realization that his physical skills were starting to decline as he entered his early 30’s, Sharif had made some significant adjustments in his game and, like a flame-throwing pitcher who later in his career is forced to develop other pitches like curve balls, sliders and change-ups, he had gone from the player he had been post-Barrington who relied exclusively on overwhelming opponents with his athleticism and creating too much pace and heat for anyone to sustain, to a more diversified game which increasingly relied on accuracy, sharp-shooting, deception and “holding” his swing to the last possible instant before wrist-flicking the ball sharply in one direction or another. Nowhere did this metamorphosis serve him better than in this match against Hunt, whose one-sided win over Caldwell had taught Sharif the inadvisability of matching pace with a grinder of Hunt’s awesome stature and made him realize that what he needed to do instead was constantly vary the pace, judiciously mixing drop shots, three-walls and lobs with pace and power, while occasionally as well throwing in angles, including on his serve, to which Hunt had heretofore never been exposed, while still relentlessly continuing to attack, attack, attack and keep Hunt in retriever mode rather than allow him to carry the play.

   This ingenious stratagem and its careful, expert and continuous application (even after losing the second game) brought Sharif to a two games to one lead and advantages of 13-4 and later 14-8 in the fourth game. Here, though, pride and perhaps a bit of stubbornness interfered with what had been an extremely successful game plan as, with the victory in hand, Sharif was determined to close out his masterpiece with a memorable flourish, to cap off this dynamic performance with a final calling-card shot --- a perfect roll-out-of-the-nick backhand three-wall --- that spectators would be recounting for years to come. He zealously pursued this goal even as the lead started to dwindle away in the face of Hunt’s stout retrieving, with point after point landing in Hunt’s column as the sought-after nick refused to come. Suddenly it was 13-14, the now-perilous nature of the moment apparent to everyone crammed into the arena. A brief and savage exchange, another Khan backhand three-wall, and victory at last, as this one rolled unplayably at the Australian superstar’s feet.

   Hunt, who would never play in this tournament again, would however return to North America several years later and in fact manage to defeat Sharif in the round-robin Mennen Cup competitions in Toronto in both 1979 (though by the time they played in the last match of the weekend Sharif had already clinched this title based on accumulated points) and 1980 in the final. He is a thoroughbred of the highest order, whose record in the international game is fully as praiseworthy as Sharif’s is in North America, and an impeccable sportsman who not only dominated but revolutionized his sport while gaining distinction as a coach as well. His bid for the 1977 North American Open will always be remembered for Sharif’s tactical acumen, for Hunt’s riveting eleventh-hour charge and for that dramatic nick which finally determined the outcome.