Squash: Jansher the warrior king of the court

'If my body stays together, I will beat everyone for the next three or four years'; Iain Fletcher finds the controversial champion icily focused on revenge this week

Iain Fletcher
Sunday 29 March 1998 00:02 GMT

"TO BE the best at anything requires much more than just talent," explained someone who definitely knows last week. "It needs a mental strength and belief. I've been blessed with all three and that is why I've won so often."

With nearly 100 tournament victories, eight World Championships and six British Open titles to his credit it is difficult to argue against Jansher Khan's logic, but there is a lot more to the world's greatest squash player than a God-given talent with a racket in his hand and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of confidence.

Born either 28 or 30 years ago, depending on whether you believe the record books (infamously unreliable in Pakistan) or Jansher himself, he grew up in the harsh, unforgiving terrain of the north-west frontier near the border with Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass. Historically, the region is famed for the ferocity of its warriors and hill tribes, and although Jansher uses a racket rather than a Kalashnikov, his natural instincts are not far removed from his predecessors'. Cunning, defiant and proud? Certainly. Ruthless? Without a doubt: not many pleasant things are said about Jansher by his opponents.

The line between greatness and villainy is often difficult to draw. After all, the true greats do not accept the limitations or the rules that restrict mortals - that is what makes them special. Jansher is such a man. The competitive fires burn brightly in him and he was lucky to find squash as a medium for his dominance, for he was not meant to be subjugated to another's will. Pleasant, sociable and surprisingly witty for a man speaking his second language, he nevertheless emanates an unmistakeable force, an intensity, and the hard edge to his personality is never far from the surface.

Success for Jansher, you get the impression, was always just a matter of time; the issue was in which arena. And that was open to doubt - his elder brother, Mohibullah Khan, reached No 2 in the world before spending nine years at Her Majesty's pleasure in Reading jail for smuggling the predominant product of the frontier region, heroin.

It was watching Mohibullah that sparked Jansher's passion for squash and he started playing at 11 years old. Tall, gangly and skinny, he defeated Rodney Eyles in the world junior championships in 1986 aged 16 and calmly announced to the world that he would soon be defeating the then supreme master, Jahangir Khan (no relation).

Such precociousness had the game's elite sharpening their knives, but the following year, at the tender age of 17, he became world champion. An amazing achievement considering he had only taken up the game six years before. "Astonishing? No, not at all," he reflected. "I said I would beat Jahangir and six months later I did. It wasn't really an issue because I knew I would do it, so when I became world champion I wasn't surprised. Everyone else was, but it's not my fault they didn't believe me."

Three more British or World Open titles and Jansher will have passed Jahangir's record of 16 major titles - a record that he covets, though not enough to travel to last November's World Open in Malaysia and cough up the $200,000 bond awaiting him for care of his first wife and child.

Eschewing the favoured "no comment, it's personal" deadbat reply, Jansher animatedly defends his decision. "I was very young when I got married but after a time I realised that it wasn't the right marriage. Everyone makes mistakes and I understand that you have to pay for your rash decisions but the amount of money they were asking for is ridiculous. Even if I had paid there is no guarantee that that would be the end of it and if I paid once they could keep asking for more. On balance I decided that I wouldn't pay $200,000 for the World Open title, particularly as the interest in the issue would have distracted me from the job of winning."

No longer No 1 (Peter Nicol from Scotland is the incumbent), no longer world champion, and seeded only No 2 for the British Open, which starts tomorrow, it must hurt not being considered the best any more? "I am still the best," he says swiftly, emphasising his point with a slap on the table. "I suffered last year from tonsillitis and needed an operation in December, that is why I lost matches and the No 1 spot - I will be No 1 again in six months.

"While training in Pakistan in January I set my aims of winning three major events this year, the British Open, the World Open and the Super Series. I proved to the world last month by winning the Super Series that I'm back and God willing if I stay fit I will win the others." The question of fitness is hanging like Damocles' sword over Jansher after he was forced to pull out of the Austrian Open a fortnight ago with sore knees. The diagnosis is a torn cartilage and bones rubbing together - both likely to shorten his career - but Jansher remains focused on his targets. "I hope Eyles [the world champion] enjoys his year because if fit I will win. The only player who worries me is Jonathon Power. He is the most talented of the rest and could beat me, but I have the experience." And the mental strength? "Oh yes. I will win, I just need my body to stay together. If it does I will beat everyone for the next three or four years."

The next seven days will show if the warning is one to be taken seriously.

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