The scenario was all too familiar, only the opponent and venue had been changed. In one corner stood the eager challenger, Billy Reedman of Montreal, the No. 2 softball squash player in North America. In the other corner, crouched the moustachioed dynamo who has won the North American championship nine times in the past 10 years and who reigns as the continent’s undisputed king of squash.
The opening game was a paradigm of excellence. With the agility and reflexes of a cat, the champion darted in and out of the corners.
The packed gallery oohed and aahed as he displayed his vast array of blinding smashes and deft soft touches. His eyes
flashed about wildly; his face contorted and mirrored every point
gained or lost. The first game was a nip and tuck affair but he won and that’s all he needed. Once he
smelled blood, there was no stopping him.
He went on to win the match and the Pony Canadian Open Squash Championship, $1,200 and another title for his collection. The one and only Sharif Kahn carried on the dynasty left by his father, the legendary Hashim Kahn.
The Kahn name has been synonymous with Canadian squash since Hashim, who still plays promotional exhibitions at 62, left Pakistan’s Khyber Pass in the ’50s to dominate the game.
Squash is booming in Canada, but England, Germany and South Africa provide the most lucrative markets for the pros. Here, Ontario and Toronto are
the major sources of growth, and the city itself is fast becoming the squash mecca of North America. The expansion in Toronto has been phenomenal since the early ’70s when the first commercial outfit, the Toronto Squash Club, opened its doors to the public. The arrival of Sharif and other pros helped to give Toronto the highest density of teaching
professionals in the world. There are now over 400 courts, 100 clubs and close to 50,000 playing members in the city. But the game is being submerged in the U.S. by racquetball and,since the U.S. is the “ultimate market,” it’s a worrisome trend that may spill over to Canada. Already, Racquetball Ontario has applied for resident group status to qualify for government funding.
The main threats, however, are internal and they create obstaclesto attracting national and regional sponsors, big tournaments and vital television exposure and dollars. Murray Christison, owner of Toronto’s Valhalla Squash Club, site of last April’s McGuiness Invitational, is on a one-man crusade to attract sponsors and promote tournaments. He “busted his ass” to please the distillery and the players and next year’s World Professional Squash Championship will be held at his club. Christison, however, has three concerns about the game; “We have an ideal market here, especially in Toronto. We have the best facilities in the world; the climate is conducive to an indoor game. But the organization on the pro level is bloody dreadful. Second, the pros haven’t put anything back into the amateur game.”
His third concern is the game’s fundamental dilemma, one that affects both pros and amateurs. International players play the softball game, while Americans play with the 70+ ball, a variation of the original hardball, on narrower courts. Canada straddles the opposing factions. The trend here is toward the international game recognized by the governing amateur body, CSRA (Canadian Squash Racquets Association). However, most of the courts are the North American size and so the club owners have a vested interest in keeping the hardball game alive. Plans have emerged to actively involve Canadian pros from all regions in a program of nationwide clinics. Also planned is an extensive publicity campaign which will feature Grand Prix tournaments and eventually cross-Canada tours.
Until now, promotion to attract sponsors has been lacking. Sharif is the only pro in North America to make a living exclusively from his tournament winnings, which total somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000. Of the other 65 pros in Canada, only the top 10 players make around $8,000 per year and all have to supplement their earnings by teaching. A la Bobby Riggs, Sharif will play an exhibition match with Heather McKay, 16-time British Women’s Open champion. “It is imperative that we have television,” says Kahn, if squash is ever to attract tennis-like prize money. But it may take more than a battle of the sexes and the Kahn name to pull it off. Ashley Collie.
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