It was back in 2005 when I first met Carla Khan. Then she was very much in the news in Pakistan – a 24-year-old from London, who had emerged as the newest heir to the once mighty Khan squash empire that captured virtually every title which the sport had to offer during the best part of the last five decades.
Carla’s grandfather, Azam Khan, won four British Open titles during the late fifties and the sixties and is unanimously regarded among the legends of world squash. Azam’s elder brother, Hashim Khan, was dubbed the ‘father’ of Pakistan squash and was the first global champion produced by Pakistan in any sport.
At that time, Carla was ranked No. 23 in the world. That made her the highest-ranked Pakistani woman on the world stage in any sport. In the fall of 2005, Carla became the latest Khan to take the fast track to squash glory by winning Pakistan’s first ever international women’s squash tournament.By the end of the WISPA POF Wah Open in Wah Cantt, squash fans in Pakistan had a snapshot of Carla’s potential. She got her game together at the Jahangir Khan Squash Complex, slashing through the draw without much fuss. She won the tournament without dropping a single game and earned a big round of applause from a packed gallery which included the all-time great of world squash, Jahangir Khan, by beating Malaysia’s second seed Sharon Wee in the final.
But that was 11 years ago.
I met Carla again this summer on a pleasant late August evening in her cozy, little home in a London suburb. Carla is, these days, a full-time mum and wife who occasionally finds time to pursue two of her greatest passions – squash and teaching.
I sat down with Carla, her husband Shahbaz Khan, a former first-class cricketer from Lahore, and her father Wasil Khan, who was a junior squash champion in Britain back in the sixties. While tending to her adorable three-year-old daughter Safiya, Carla told me about the highs and lows of her squash career and that she still yearns to win the British Open like her father and grandfather. Here are excerpts of the interview.
TNS: How, why and when did you start playing squash?
Carla Khan: From birth I had bad health and suffered from a kidney disorder, I was overweight and our doctor told my parents that the best thing for me would be to take up a sport and hopefully my body would get stronger. I was about 12 when my parents chose the sport (squash) for me. This was because of our family background with my father Wasil Khan being junior British Open champion. He is part of the great Khan dynasty founded by my father’s uncle Hashim Khan and my grandfather Azam Khan. I did not know much about it till the time I started competing in international tournaments myself.
TNS: Did squash remain your first choice?
CK: Yes, as my mind never swayed to any other sport. Squash was my life and love. It also cured my health issue, much to the doctors’ surprise and I didn’t have to undergo surgery.
TNS: When did you feel certain that you had a future as a squash professional?
CK: I was not a natural at the game and my dad had to work extremely hard with me. I was uncoordinated, overweight and had never really participated in any sporting activity but one thing I had was mental strength and determination. I was going to make squash my future and believed in myself. In my first tournament a year after starting, I lost every match without even winning a single point and I couldn’t even serve properly. People laughed but I never gave up. My dad sent me to a good private boarding school. Later, I had offers from good universities especially after I won the US Junior Open. But I gave up my education to pursue squash and thankfully my dad was very supportive.
TNS: What were the high points of your squash career?
CK: Some of the high points were when I made top 20 in the world rankings. When I won the first international Pakistan women’s open without dropping a game and when I beat world No. 1 Nicol David who had been undefeated before that match.
TNS: And the lows?
CK: There were many lows throughout my career as politics surrounded my career unfortunately. The fact that I came from a great family held me back. I was accepted by England squash, but to gain their support I had to give up my allegiance to Pakistan. They offered me lottery funding, I declined due to my father’s heritage, thinking Pakistan would offer support. Unfortunately, that didn’t materialise and I had to deal with a great deal of negativity. I always felt like an outsider even though I was a top junior with a glimmering future. Moreover, a female playing squash at that time was taboo; even my grandfather condemned it as the Pathan culture was so strict. I tried to overcome all those hurdles, fought those hurdles and am proud to have left a legacy as the first Pakistani international girl squash player. Many other girls in Pakistan have followed suit after I helped raised the profile of women’s squash in the country.
As I said, despite all of that there was a lot of negativity. Finally when I was chosen by Pakistan in the Common Wealth Games 2002 a huge issue arose as we had a good chance of winning medals for Pakistan! Some competing teams raised the question saying that I was not eligible to represent Pakistan. The media supported me and this was the first time that I was accepted by Pakistan as a professional squash player. I was not allowed to compete because of politics whilst representing Pakistan.
But that period did not last long. It was at SAF Games in 2005 in Sri Lanka where I injured my spine. I had to withdraw because of the paralyzing injury. My father eventually got me back to the UK, and we never heard from the Pakistan squash authorities again.
In 2009 I moved to America and was quite in demand as a coach for youngsters; however during my coaching stint my old injury recurred and this time I had to undergo surgery ending my promising career of reaching my goal to be world No 1.
I am still approached by various European girls to coach them and continue to do so. There also invitations from Muslim countries like Iran. I would still love to support Pakistani squash in some form or the other if the opportunity arises. I am now a mother of two children Sifiya and Musa and my husband being a cricketer, has revived my interest in sports. I would now like to, InshaAllah, provide a service in sports to others. I am keen to exploit this avenue again and pick up the squash racket and follow extensive training schedules.
TNS: What were the reasons behind your decision to play for Pakistan?
CK: In 2000 after a good junior career being top ranking and European No 1 and lottery-funded by England, I had this feeling that I didn’t belong (in the England team). I made my own decision to switch to Pakistan because I thought coming back to my roots and heritage would make me a stronger player and there would be more opportunity of which I could use my skills to improve women’s squash in Pakistan.
TNS: Do you regret making that move?
CK: Yes I do because if I had stayed with England I would have been financially supported and maybe my career would not have ended so soon. My father spent thousands of pounds supporting my dream but on the other hand I had so much support from the general public in Pakistan who encouraged me and had followed my career. These people are the reason why I stayed with Pakistan. I also found my roots, culture and religion while travelling and playing in Pakistan.
TNS: Did you get any support from bodies like the Pakistan Squash federation and Pakistan Olympic Association (PO)?
CK: None whatsoever! They only tried to hold me back.
TNS: Tell us about your injury in Sri Lanka and what do you think were the reasons behind it?
CK: Once again I was embroiled in politics; India did not like the idea that I was the top seed and tried to get me out of the SAF Games as they knew I was going to win a medal for Pakistan. Unfortunately, I got injured, whilst on court training with a Pakistani coach, and was given strong painkillers to carry on competing. I did go on but finally while playing India’s No 1 my back grew worse and I had to be rushed to the hospital. My dad arranged for my travel back home and again there was no Pakistani support.
TNS: Do you have any plans of making a comeback in squash?
CK: Yes, as veteran perhaps. Most of my family members from my father’s side, including my dad himself, have won the prestigious British Open. I would like to follow in their footsteps and win the British Open (women’s Over-40 event) in the future.
TNS: Do you have any plans to switch to coaching?
CK: During my playing days, I coached all over the world including USA. I have had many women international players ask me to return to coach them of which I would like to do, especially I want to help the Pakistani girls but only if they are serious and willing to dedicate themselves fully.
TNS: You are part of Pakistan’s squash dynasty. How does it feel that the dynasty is now a thing of the past?
CK: It makes me very sad. The other countries have taken over now because the governing bodies in those countries support their players. Take a look at Britain. It’s a small nation with so many Olympic medals. That has all been made possible with proper funding and support. In squash, we were the pioneers. We were the magicians. All of them learned from Pakistan. All is not lost. Someday, maybe soon, another Khan will appear and become the world champion and revive the glory. Maybe one of my kids could be one of them.
TNS: Can you ever contribute towards Pakistan squash in any manner?
CK: I always wanted to help and remain passionate about squash and other sports. I believe my experience of playing all over the world, the pitfalls and other stuff might help upcoming players. My father, who remains a big sports buff, is willing to set up an academy in the UK for overseas juniors. The idea is to help them enhance their skills in an international environment and to also help them to blend in. He is seeking sponsors for Pakistani juniors from the cricket, squash, tennis, football, hockey, golf etc. For those who want their children to achieve laurels internationally, it’s the way forward.
TNS: You have married a Pakistani who plays cricket. How did it happen?
CK: It was an arranged marriage with the help of my dad. I embraced Islam. It was very compatible that we both have an understanding of sports. I am extremely happy that this has worked out well. It also encourages me in my goal to establish an academy.
TNS: You have two kids. Would you want them to become squash players?
CK: I would like them to know how to play and offer every opportunity in all the sports to discover which sport will be their natural ability but first we want them to have a good education in the UK, and support them like my parent did for me.
TNS: How big a role has your dad played in your squash career?
CK: Without my dad’s support, I would never have a squash career. My father, Wasil Khan, coached me. He took me to tournaments all over the world. He supported me financially. He paid for Pakistani squash players to come to Britain and train me. It eventually helped them too as they became good coaches with all the experience and exposure that they got here. Despite all the problems which we faced, my dad encouraged me to keep going. What more can I say I thank him and Allah for all that I experienced and am very humbled to know I was very lucky to have had such a wonderful life, that many could not experience.