Newly Discovered WPSA Film Disproves Commonly Accepted Belief About The Length Of Jahangir Khan’s Legendary Winning Streak      
by Rob Dinerman

Dateline January 5th ---- The recently resurfaced 33-minute video chronicling the 1984-85 World Professional Squash Association (WPSA) hardball tour, in addition to providing an enormously entertaining and thought-provoking viewing experience on multiple levels, is significant as well for the manner in which it clearly refutes the almost universally accepted perception throughout the squash community that Jahangir Khan went undefeated between his 1981 British Open final-round loss to Geoff Hunt in April of that year and his October 1986 World Open final-round loss to Ross Norman five and a half years later. Produced by former WPSA Executive Director Bob French and sponsored by Xerox Canada, one of that tour’s leading sponsors, the film was discovered this past autumn by David Carr of McWIL Squash Courts, who sent it to early-1980’s WPSA President Clive Caldwell, who then arranged to convert the original film to a video format that allowed it to be viewed online.

    As a long-time WPSA tour player who also had the privilege of serving as the official writer for the WPSA for more than a decade, I was thrilled to watch the wonderfully-presented footage of matches from that season, and even more so to again witness the elegance of Mario Sanchez, the dignity and sleekness of Jahangir Khan, the lethal stroke production of Ned Edwards, Todd Binns and John Nimick, the classic swing preparation of Caldwell, the extraordinary athleticism of the late Tom Page and the gentle, soft-spoken manner (belying his IRON competitive will) of Mark Talbott, all on full display. One of the most memorable and detailed sequences of the video was the manner in which it depicted the highlight of Talbott’s career, when, after losing decisively to Khan throughout the previous season, he scored a breakthrough win against him, 18-16 in the fifth, in November 1984 in the final of that year’s Boston Open at the Cyclorama, just a few blocks from where Khan had overwhelmed Talbott, 15-8, 8 and 5, at the University Club of Boston in the ’83 final. The film shows Khan tinning a backhand boast on the last point and enduring the (for him) extremely rare experience of being on the losing end of the handshake, as the normally undemonstrative Talbott exultantly throws his arms in the air and walks into a prolonged embrace with his father just outside the doorway of the court.

    Coincidentally, just a day or two after watching the WPSA video, I received an email from a prominent squash figure who wrote to ask me a few questions about Khan’s “five-year unbeaten streak.” It made me immediately flash back to that sequence and caused me to wonder (both to myself and in my rather forceful emailed response) how anyone could say that Khan had gone undefeated from 1981-86 when I had just seen the film of his loss to Talbott in November 1984, a full 23 months before Norman defeated him. Nor was the Talbott match in Boston the only, or first, loss that Khan sustained in WPSA competition either --- seven months earlier, in April 1984, Sanchez had pinned a three games to love number on him in the semifinals of the Canadian Pro championships at the Skyline Club in suburban Toronto. These losses did not come when Khan was just learning the hardball game or in his first few WPSA tournaments. On the contrary, they both occurred right in the middle of his dominant hardball (and softball) stretch: at the time of his loss to Talbott at the Cyclorama, Khan was the reigning Boston Open, WPSA Championships and North American Open champion.

     I am not sure why when tennis star Rafael Nadal won a record 81 straight matches on clay in 2006-2007 while losing several matches on grass and on hard courts during that time, the tennis literature correctly identifies his winning skein as being limited to clay-court tournaments, yet when Jahangir Khan went undefeated in softball from April 1981 to October 1986 while losing several hardball matches during that period, the squash literature (as well as a notation in the Guinness Book Of Records) IN-correctly fails to identify his winning streak as being limited to softball tournaments and instead declares that he never lost a match for five and a half years with no qualifier attached. The simple statistical reality is that Khan’s undefeated run lasted five and a half years IN SOFTBALL but only three years overall, i.e., from the Hunt match in April 1981 to the Sanchez match in April 1984.

   It wasn’t like Khan was just dabbling in hardball or playing a few WPSA events as a lark. Anyone watching the video, in which he is quoted several times, can see how hard (and well) he played and how serious and dedicated a commitment he made to the WPSA hardball tour, on which he competed in well over a dozen WPSA sanctioned ranking tournaments during three mid-1980’s seasons, compiling records of 23-1 in 1983-84, 15-1 in 1984-85 and 14-0 in 1985-86, and capturing most of the tour’s major titles and a large portion of its prize money. In the process of so doing, he twice received the WPSA Player Of The Year Award, transformed the competitive landscape, went a dominant 10-1 (all in finals) against the redoubtable Talbott and fully made good on his stated mission to “unify the title” by becoming the undisputed best player in the world in both squash disciplines. Indeed, in May 1985, Khan took on --- and conquered --- perhaps the most ambitious challenge in the history of squash. That year the British Open and North American Open, the two most prestigious championships in softball and hardball squash respectively, were held in so compressed a time frame that the morning after Khan’s four-game British Open final-round win over Chris Dittmar, he had to board a Concorde jet and fly to New York, landing just in time for his first-round match that night.

   Four days later, Khan, after rallying from two-games-to-one down against Page in the quarterfinals and dispatching Edwards in the semis, straight-gamed Steve Bowditch (a 3-2 semifinal winner over Talbott) to earn his second North American Open crown in as many attempts, thereby rising superior to fatigue, letdown, jet lag and the best that both professional circuits had to offer. Khan has always said about the extraordinary “double” he accomplished that the Page match, an air-sucking, rubber-burning punch-out that many spectators have insisted was the highest-level squash they had ever witnessed, was by far the hardest-earned of his 10 victories during that hectic and history-making fortnight. By any measurement, Khan was a dominant player during his fairly brief but incandescent time on the WPSA hardball tour, but that was not true to as pronounced a degree as was the case on the softball tour. He was pushed several times to five games in his hardball matches and, as the video (which also alluded to the Sanchez loss) proves, he lost several times to top-tier WPSA players in the late stages of important tournaments. Interestingly, Khan always easily won his hardball matches against the softball players (Bowditch, Dittmar and Hiddy Jahan among them) who played on the WPSA tour, who were likely psyched out by what he had done to them in softball, but when he went up against top WPSA players in WPSA events, there were several times when he had as much, or more, than he could handle. The Sanchez and Talbott results were very much under-reported and, worse, under-respected at the time, to a degree that, as noted, has caused them to have been widely ignored in modern documentation of squash’s history, almost as if they had never happened. This essay is an attempt to rectify those oversights, whether they have been intentional or accidental, and to set the record straight.

   Neither Khan’s British Open/North American double nor his 10-straight British Open titles (from 1982-91) will ever be approached, let alone equaled, and few would dispute his standing as the greatest squash player of all time, a status that is ENHANCED, rather than lessened, by what he achieved in hardball competition. A few blemishes on an otherwise spotless slate over so prolonged a time frame in no way diminishes either Khan’s shining legacy or the vision and courage he showed in successfully seeking supremacy in both forms of the sport. Every aspect of his competitive record is worthy of a degree of respect that borders on reverence. It is also worthy of being presented with a level of accuracy that has been lacking over the years, both in fact and in the public perception. Hopefully going forward the empirical truth --- that Jahangir Khan went undefeated for three years overall in professional squash and for five and a half years in softball competition – will displace the myth that has been allowed to take hold for far too long.

(photos courtesy 'Hardball')

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