Brought his Vision for Softball Squash to Seattle
He's Retiring Now But His Legacy Remains
Yusuf Khan is basically a living legend in Seattle, his adopted hometown of more than 30 years. For starters, he has the Khan name—an immediate signal to success in the squash world. He has held numerous championship titles, including the Indian national professional title 10 consecutive times, the inaugural Boston Open, and various doubles championships around North America. He's raised two of his daughters to become professional players and national champions, with many of his other six children top contenders as well. And he basically grew softball squash from the ground up in Seattle.
This July, Yusuf Khan officially announced his retirement as teaching professional of the Seattle Athletic Club-Downtown, a position he held for 15 years following stints at other local clubs. Without his omnipresence at the club, there is a void to be filled. His son Ayub has assumed the position of head pro at the club, and daughter Shabana, current Women's Open US National Champion, is the assistant. Latasha, another daughter and finalist of the same US National Championships this past March, does not officially work at the club, though this is her home base for training and she also teaches several lessons weekly.
“We're having a hard time,” Shabana says of her father's absence from the club. “He's so good at customer service. He talks to you, he always has time for you.” That thought is echoed by nearly anyone who knows Yusuf Khan.
As he tells it, Yusuf Khan was “born into the squash.” In 1931 in Nowshera, India (now Pakistan), Khan was born to his father, Gulb Khan, and mother, Abu Gan. His father did not play squash much, though various other extended family members, such as cousins and uncles, played the game. At age nine, Khan worked as a “tennis boy,” retrieving errant balls hit by players using the roofless courts at the local British Army base. Soon after, he hopped on the court with a racquet and began to pick up tennis and squash.
When he was 13, Yusuf befriended an English brigadier named Michael Taylor. Taylor, about 40 years his senior, would play squash with Yusuf every day at four o'clock at the Army courts (squash had to be played during daylight hours to take advantage of the unlit courts). Their relationship fostered, to the point where Yusuf spent many days with Taylor talking and learning about much more than just squash. “He teaches me a lot of things—how to do all that, live the life,” Yusuf fondly recalls of his friend, who taught him valuable lessons such as to start each day with a cup of tea, and to get his hair cut every four weeks (“For the last 50 years, I don't miss four weeks!” Khan says.).
In 1947, tensions between India and its British-ruled government mounted, and Britain agreed that year to end their rule of the country. The Partition took place, with India splitting along the religious boundary line—Hindus on one side and Muslims on the other—into two separate countries: India and Pakistan. Yusuf's immediate family planned to move to Pakistan, as they were originally from that part of the country.
“One day I was out there, sitting in the squash area, and he [Taylor] came and say, 'What happened? What's wrong with you?' to me. So I told him, I say, 'Look, I have to move. Because I have to go to the other side.' He say, 'Where?' I say, 'I have to go to Pakistan.' He say, “Look, you don't have to go… The way your squash looks to me and the way you have this family in squash, you have a lot of cousins that will be playing with you, a lot of mothers and fathers. Somebody will be here, be able to take care of you. So always stay in the game. It's a great game—stay with it.'” Taylor continued: “I'm going to give you something and I'll take care of you. Don't worry.”
Two days later, Taylor brought Khan a package. “Any time you're in trouble, anything you want… this package will present everything,” Taylor said.
Shortly after, Taylor returned to England and sent letters to Yusuf every couple of months. Several years later, a letter came saying Taylor had died of cancer. Khan was sad for a time—sad for his friend's death and sad that he did not get to visit him in England. Then he remembered the package.
“We opened the package,” says Khan, who had a friend with him to witness what was inside. “And there were three letters, including one to the High Commissioner of India and one to the station commander of India, plus a 2000 rupee cashier's check was there. It says, 'This is your fare to come to England.'”
Khan did not go to England, for by this time, at age 19, he had established himself in India as a squash and tennis teacher in the Army. But because of the brigadier, Yusuf's life in squash was forever altered. “Because of this guy I stay in India,” Khan says. “Otherwise today I'd be in Pakistan, I don't know where I would be.”
Yusuf Khan remained in India for nearly two decades more, teaching and playing competitive squash. During that time, his pro squash career took him to some of the world's most prestigious events: The Dunlop Open, the British Open, the Scotland Open. He won the East India title every year that it was held between 1958 and 1968. He won the West India title for nine years straight during that same time frame, as well as India's national pro squash title for 10 years, all in the international softball game.
While winning was his specialty in the competitive circle, Yusuf Khan was also producing some winning junior players under his reign. In 1957, Khan moved from Deolali to Bombay (now Mumbai) to teach at the Cricket Club of India. He worked with players like Fali Maddon, Naval Pandole, and Anil Nayar—a future US National champion.
Nayar was one of Khan's unexpected protégés. As he explains, Nayar would come to the club on a near daily basis, begging to learn to play squash. But at the time, Nayar was quite overweight for his young age and Yusuf was not sure of his dedication to the sport. Shortly, though, he noticed Nayar coming to practice and to play the game on his own, and after about six months he agreed to take on Nayar as a student. “Everybody thought I'm just crazy, wasting a lot of time with him, you know,” recalls Yusuf. But by age 16, Nayar had won the Western India Championship and went on to win the British Drysdale Cup two years later. By 1966, Nayar had been offered a scholarship to Harvard University in Boston. He came to the States and won the intercollegiate championships in 1967. “So somebody asked him, 'Who is your teacher?' and he say, 'His name is Yusuf Khan out of India… He like to come to United States too,'” Khan says. The news got around, and soon after Yusuf received a letter from the Seattle Tennis Club, asking him to become the Assistant Tennis Pro. Khan, along with his first five children (Shamshad, Shanaz, Ayub, Azam, and Shabana were born in India; Latasha, Mumtaz, and Murad were all born in the States), packed their belongings to head to the United States. Yusuf didn't even bother to ask about the specifics of the job. “Okay, I'll come,” he said.
Khan spent three months as the Assistant Tennis Pro at the club before he asked, “Hey, do you have a squash court here?” They took him to the squash court. “Ha! It's a funny squash court. The lines are so high… Oh, something wrong,” Yusuf says, giggling. It was a hardball court.
Yusuf started playing squash again and began teaching the sport at various clubs around the Seattle area. He bounced around, teaching at a different club every day while still competing on the weekends at major tournaments throughout the country and world, now in both softball and hardball singles (he had quickly picked up the hardball game after first seeing the court in '68). Also, in 1969 Yusuf paired with a local, A-level player and the two traveled to Vancouver, BC, to compete in a doubles tournament. That year they were the finalists—in Yusuf's first-ever doubles tournament—and the following year the pair took the title. Yusuf then teamed with Sharif Khan and the pair of Khans won several doubles titles in Canada. (Sharif and his father, Hashim Khan, are not direct relatives of Yusuf's family; however, both families are close friends with one another.)
Between 1973 and 1975, Khan and his family moved to Portland, Oregon, where he was the pro at the Multnomah Athletic Club. But though his job was in Oregon, Khan found himself traveling north every couple of weeks to play squash with his friends in Seattle. During those trips, he continually noticed an empty building on the road out to West Seattle—where one of the first settlements in the city was located—and he was curious. To several friends, Yusuf mentioned his idea to build a squash center there. The idea was a hit.
Khan, along with his wife, Jane, and some of the co-owners of the soon-to-be Tennis World designed the center, featuring 23 indoor tennis courts, six each of hardball squash and racquetball courts, four badminton courts, and one international court—one of the first in the US. This was 1975. International squash had not come to the US in full swing. But when the club opened, what could have furthered the cause was foiled: “Nobody opened the international court,” Khan says. “That [becomes] other storage room!”
Khan quickly quit working at Tennis World, due to struggles with his business partners, and went back to teaching at a handful of local clubs. In about five years' time, though, the Tennis World club folded. Khan went to the new owner of the property to inquire about leasing the squash facilities. The day after entering a lease for the newly named Seattle Racquets Club (S.R.C.), Khan opened that international court.
Around that same era was when the Khan children—especially Azam, Ayub, Shabana, and Latasha—started to discover squash. “Before I started playing squash, it was definitely something we didn't understand—that was Dad's job,” explains Shabana, who started the game at age 13. “I remember going to the airport and seeing him off and not quite understand what he was doing… His training was incredible, he was in great shape. I wish I could have seen him and appreciated watching him play.” Yusuf would take the children to one of his clubs every now and again on a weekend, to expose them to squash and spend some quality time with them. But, at least for Shabana, it was more about going to hang out with Dad and drink lemonade afterward than it was about squash.
“When I was coming from India to United States, I not thought my kids should be squash players,” Yusuf says. “I never talked to kids but my inside feeling was [that]. You know why? Because there's a lot of pride for the Khan name. When you go inside [the court] you're just running like crazy. Run, run. Why? Because your name is Khan. So that was a lot of pressure.” He preferred his kids to get an education first, squash second. “Championships can take away from you sometimes. But a degree no go away… I'm lucky I made it,” Khan says of his high-school equivalent education.
But as soon as Yusuf had leased his own space and was heading the squash program at the S.R.C., the kids' interest in their father's squash life was piqued. “I noticed coming home from school that my brothers were never there—they were at the club, and that's really when they got serious,” Shabana says. “That's when it just trickled down. One sibling's out there, the other's looking for the other one, and so on and so forth. We were all pretty close… Azam, I was unfortunately his shadow, and I was like, 'What is he doing?'” she says, laughing. When she found out Azam and Ayub spent every day on the squash court, she wanted to know what the sport was about. Shabana tagged along and picked up the game. Latasha soon followed suit.
After only six months of playing the game, Shabana became the Under 14 National champion and Latasha, only age eight, was ranked fourth in the Under 12s. Both daughters progressed, Shabana winning her age group for four consecutive years, and Latasha starting to collect wins at about age 15. Today, the two daughters are continuing that pattern: Shabana, in the final of the Women's Open draw at the 2001 US Nationals, beat her sister Latasha in five games. It was Khan v Khan, playing on their home court in Seattle. But even during this match of sibling versus sibling, their father and coach did not choose sides; he kept it professional.
From the minute the children began to play, their father was their coach, but he kept home life and squash life totally separated. “When we were in there with the door shut, he was your coach. And when the door was back open, you're back to being his child,” explains Shabana of Yusuf's coaching. “It's very rare that you can teach your child to be a national champion… it shows you that much more of what a great coach he was.”
Though he kept it professional on court with his students—relatives or not—Yusuf also openly shared his love of squash and the squash community. “The best way to explain it is a lot of the men would tell my father that they were going to get married before their future spouses knew—they'd discuss it with him… and then vice versa, the women would tell him they're probably pregnant before they told their husbands,” says Shabana. “It's not just going in to take a lesson. It's everything.”
Yusuf Khan gave everything, and more, to squash in Seattle. During his three decades on the scene there, he brought three US National championships to local courts, as well as hosted an array of world professional tour stops, including the first-ever Women's World Championships held in the United States, in 1999, and also the Men's US Open in 1989. “He has brought international recognition to the Seattle Club as being the squash place to go,” says Nevil Hermer, a long-time friend and squash player with Yusuf. Amidst raising funds and lining up sponsors for such tournaments, coordinating the events, and making the draws, Yusuf still had time to teach. And more importantly, he still had time to have fun on the court.
“He's worked six days a week, and he would come to the club on Sunday, the seventh day, just to play doubles just because he loved the game so much,” tells Hermer. “There's four of us on a tiny little court, running around. And he'd be sitting in the back giggling, because this was for him real fun. It's just a reflection of his love for the game. I don't know that you could ever find a trainer or a coach or anybody who would put what he's put into the game and still come for that extra thing just because it was fun. I think it would be impossible to replace that level of commitment.”
One example of the reciprocal love the local community has for Yusuf comes from when he suffered a heart attack in 1978. While finishing a lesson with Kim Proctor, Yusuf began to feel a little strange, but he kept playing. Yusuf dressed after the lesson and left the club, then returned immediately, knowing something was wrong. The ambulance was called, and Yusuf was taken to the hospital, where he stayed for about four days. (Proctor tells the story a bit different: He says he had never been able to beat Khan, and one day the two were playing when suddenly Yusuf “gets pale… I'm sensing a real opportunity here!” Proctor says, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. While Khan lay on the floor of the court, Proctor asked him, “Yusuf, do you concede?” A pause. “As soon as you concede, I will go get the doctor.” “I concede,” said Yusuf. It should be noted that as Proctor tells this story, at a retirement party for Yusuf, Khan is hysterically laughing. Which version can be true?)
Yusuf and his family did not have health insurance at the time. But emotional and monetary support poured in from local squash players who had heard of his illness. “One day a nurse came to me,” says Yusuf of the hospital stay, “and she say, 'Who are you?' And I say, 'What do you mean who are you? I am Yusuf.' And she say, 'We know your name. But are you from some country, the Prime Minister or something?' I say, 'No, why?' She say, 'Every doctor come here first and then they go to work. They look, they see how you're doing.' And I say, 'I teaching squash [to] everybody.' 'Ohhhh. Oh, that is reason they are coming,'” said the nurse. To this day, Yusuf has not had to pay some of the medical bills incurred during the hospital stay, as the doctors, many of them squash players, did not bill him.
Following the incident, Yusuf was itching to get back on the courts. He asked his doctor if it would be okay for him to start teaching squash again, within a week of the heart attack. His doctor told him no—he should rest. “I say, 'I don't have to run,'” Yusuf says of that conversation. “Why?” the doctor asked. “Before they hit the ball, I know where the ball is going. Don't worry!” Yusuf replied.
Over the last 30 years, Khan has learned where just about every shot from every player will go before they hit it. He knows names, faces, skill levels, styles of play—even intimate secrets of his students. Khan says he plans to be around in the squash scene for at least 10 more years in one form or another, despite his official retirement. No matter the role he takes on, now that his kin have taken over at the Seattle Athletic Club, Yusuf Khan has left an indelible mark on the Seattle squash community. He's changed the face of the sport in the city, growing the squash programs to an internationally acclaimed level and passing on that legacy to his children, who will take the next step forward.
Where Did This Guy Come From?
In 1956, the Indian Army sent Yusuf Khan (photo left) to England for the first time to compete in three tournaments: The Dunlop Open, British Open, and Scotland Open. For the Dunlop, the organizers of the event seeded Yusuf third, far ahead of the expectations of the Pakistani players. “All Pakistan surprised,” he recalls. “'Where did this guy come from?' Usually there was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—all of Pakistan. And then I break them out” by becoming the No. 3 seed. This was Yusuf's first tournament. There, he lost to Hashim Khan, a good family friend with the shared last name, in the semis. He went on to lose two more times that year to Hashim in the semis, but he had caused a stir to the normal Pakistani-driven top seeds and the followers of squash in that area of the world. “You know here we looking at stock market [in the newspapers]? In Pakistan, every morning people looking through squash page,” says Khan.