How to Take Down the World’s Most Dominant Sportsman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Ending the longest winning streak in sports history is one of the greatest lessons in perseverance.
By James Watkins
Ross Norman had been walking again for just three short years following a parachute accident that had forced a complete knee reconstruction. The doctors were trying to ensure he could walk without a limp, not help him return to the top rankings of professional squash, one of the world’s most physically challenging sports. Even with a rebuilt knee, though, it took Norman only three and a half years to reach No. 2 in the world, but that challenge was nothing compared with what now lay in front of him, the difficulty of which was literally laughable.
It was the final of the World Open, Nov. 11, 1986, Toulouse, France. Norman’s brutal semifinal the night before had lasted more than 100 minutes — quite the marathon in a sport that’s as calorie-intensive as boxing and rowing. But he was feeling good. “Everything should [have been] pointing to me feeling bloody tired, and sore and stiff, but I wasn’t for some reason,” says the New Zealander.
Good thing too. At a press conference a few months earlier, Norman had predicted that to beat the player he was set to face in the finals that day, he’d have to keep him on court more than 100 minutes. Reporters and fellow professionals had laughed at Norman’s comment, because nobody had ever come close to extending a match against the player beyond an hour or so.
I’d seen him break a few people.
Squash champion Ross Norman on Jahangir Khan
Norman’s opponent? The legendary Jahangir Khan, who hadn’t lost a match in more than five and a half years. For 14 months of that time, Norman had been ranked second behind Jahangir (as with Ronaldo, the Pakistani squash great is often known by just his first name, not only because of his godlike reputation but also because the Khan dynasty birthed several other notable squash pros). Jahangir had reeled off 555 straight wins, the longest-recorded streak in any sport ever. By comparison, Martina Navratilova has the longest streak in tennis, with 74 matches; UConn women’s basketball had 111 victories in a row; American hurdler Edwin Moses won 122 consecutive races … nobody comes close.
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Jahangir Khan is a man whose name is synonymous with squash. A man universally recognised as the world’s greatest ever player and an athlete who transcended his sports to be acknowledged as world’s greatest ever sportsman. He is also a 10 time British Open Champion. #JahangirKhan #CriterionQuarterly #Cq
Norman had met Jahangir in 30 matches — 20 of them in major finals — and had lost every single time. Earlier in 1986, they’d faced each other in the final of the Spanish Open, and Spanish TV had awarded them 40 minutes of live coverage. They didn’t even fill the time slot, as Jahangir dominated, only conceding a single point (at the time, squash matches were first to three games, with each game scored up to 9 points). “It was pretty embarrassing,” says Norman. “He just wiped me out. That’s what he was capable of.”
Jahangir wasn’t simply a natural-born wizard of the game, though he certainly had talent. “Fitness played a much bigger role than anything else,” says Rahmat Khan, Jahangir’s cousin and coach throughout his career. “Discipline,” hard work and mental toughness were key to his brutal training regimen, says Rahmat, and points to a career-shaping moment early in Jahangir’s life. When Jahangir was 15, his older brother, Torsam, himself a leading pro squash player, had a heart attack and died on court during a tournament in Australia. It took a month to convince Jahangir’s father to let his younger son back on a squash court, says Rahmat, and two more months to channel Jahangir’s mourning into grit. Two years later, the 17-year-old defeated squash great Geoff Hurst in the final of the 1981 World Open, and then he just kept winning.
Back in Toulouse, it was Jahangir’s first and only tournament without a coach in his corner — Rahmat’s wife was due to give birth that week. Norman won the first two games, 9-5 and 9-7, and history had already been made — this had never happened before. Jahangir won the third game 9-7, “but he looked tired,” recalls Norman. “There were a couple of shots in there that he decided not to run for, and I’d never seen him do that. And that was motivation in itself.” Norman won the fourth and final game 9-1.
Being the closest challenger with a singular, but almost impossible, goal is surely one of the greatest lessons in perseverance in all of sport. “I’d seen him break a few people,” says Norman. Most notably, Egyptian Gamal Awad lost to Jahangir 3-1 in the longest squash match ever played — nearly three hours, and it didn’t even go to a deciding fifth game. “Gamal was never the same player after that. Jahangir just got stronger,” says Norman. His advice? The key “was to keep bouncing back, to keep at him until he got sick of you.”
But for Jahangir, losing to Norman was but a blip. “We didn’t even know” about the 555-match record until the newspapers reported it after the loss, says Rahmat — they were focused on beating Hurst’s record of eight British Open titles. In a way, the loss alleviated some of the pressure to be invincible, says Rahmat — “being Jahangir [was] like running in front of a train.” Far more impactful, says Rahmat, was when Jahangir lost to compatriot Jansher Khan nine successive times in 1987–88, before bouncing back to defeat Jansher, return to the top ranking and claim several more world titles. “I say I trained two world champions,” says Rahmat — Jahangir as a teenager, and then Jahangir again, seven years later, “when people thought he was finished.”