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National squash event in Bellevue drew world's best

National squash event in Bellevue drew world's best

Bellevue's role as a growing center for the sport of squash was enhanced last weekend as the quest of the best players in the world for a share of the most lucrative 16-man squash tournament purse ever had the attention of the squash-world, but with unfortunately little local attention or support.

Frenchman Gregory Gaultier, currently World Number 1 in the sport, won the title and accompanying $25,000, defeating Egyptian Ali Farag in a tournament that added to the image of Shabana Khan as one of the sport's emerging star promoters. Her YSK Events put on the tournament.Shabana Khan

With $150,000 in prize money on the table, the PMI Bellevue Squash Classic was appropriately staged as a sort of coming-out party for the Boys & Girls Club Hidden Valley Field House just north of Downtown Bellevue.

When she put on the Men's World Squash Championship in late 2015, first time ever for the event on U.S. soil, Shabana charted new territory for prize money, which totaled $325,000 for the event that was held at Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center. That amount became the threshold going forward with the U.S. Open in Philadelphia next fall boasting a $350,000 purse.

I was struck by the fact that when you watch the speed, agility and athleticism of the top squash ccompetitor and reflect on the comparative talents needed for other racket sports, it's hard not to ask "why is tennis played everywhere and squash isn't?"

I posed that question to Shabana's older brother, Azam, four times a member of the U.S. Open team, and he said: "Tennis courts are everywhere and available to all while squash courts are in clubs and available only to the elite, but we intend to change that and it's one of Shabana's goals."

In fact, statistics on the sport indicate it is growing faster in this country than anywhere in the world, with the U.K. and Egypt following close behind.

For those on hand for the 2015 Men's World Championships, there was a bit of déjà vu since Gaultier defeated an Egyptian in that year's final to win his first World title after losing the in the final match three previous years.

Only a few in the inner circle of those helping Shabana with the event were aware that had it not been for the assist from Robert Greczanik, whom Asam Khan describes as "specializing in restoring injured athletes to full enhanced function," to help overcome an ankle injury that Gaultier feared would keep him out of the finals.

As an aside, Gaultier had turned to Greczanik, who runs Energetic Sports Lab in Bellevue, prior to the 2015 finals to address the fact he simply felt "all beat up with numerous injuries."

Squash players from around the world who were on hand for both events praised the Boys & Girls Club as far more appealing for players and fans, particularly for the interaction between them, than Meydenbauer, which incidentally had rejected her effort to hold this year's event there, telling her to look elsewhere.

And the community supporters of the Hidden Valley club must have been pleased to see its visibility on the global squash stage with thousands subscribing to the television coverage.

Players from 17 nations were on hand, but Shabana made it 18, using what's called a "wild card" for promoters of squash events, to let a young player from Connecticut compete to make sure the U.S. was represented.

Leading the as-yet small group of believers in what Shabana's squash initiatives are intended to mean for the Bellevue community's image and the opportunity she seeks to bring to the city's and region's young people was Dave Cutler. He is not only universally acclaimed as the key technical brain behind the Microsoft Windows NT and all the subsequent windows versions. A decade ago he was recognized as a National Medal of Technology and Innovation laureate, perhaps the most prestigious honor in the country for developers of new technology.

His support, and the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of Microsofties who cross the street from the company's Redmond campus to play at the Pro Sports Club where Shabana, Asam and Latasha are instructors helped guide Microsoft into the Presenting sponsorship with Pro Sports as the Official sponsor.

Pacific Market International, a Seattle-based brand and product-marketing company with offices in seven cities around the world, has been a strong supporter of both this five-day event and of the 2015 Men's Championship as title sponsor.

Richard and Jackie Lange, Woodinville residents, stepped up as a family after Shabana created a national tournament for young squash players called the National Gold Tournament that attracted 175 young people from around the country to compete in groups broken down as under 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19. Shabana notes that 20 college coaches looked on for the older players' matches at the event held earlier this spring, also at the Boys & Girls Club.

The Langes, whose daughter, Kristin, played squash at Penn and was a three-time intercollegiate finalist, put up the money for five years of having the youth competition be "The Lange Showcase," sharing Shabana's vision of making squash available to young people of all ages and means.

Khan is the most famous last name in squash. Distant cousins Hasim and his son Sharif, and cousin Jahangir, dominated world squash for decades. 

Yusuf Khan 10-time all-India champion, emigrated to the U.S. in 1968 to teach tennis at the Seattle Tennis Club, bringing with him his family that then included children Asam and Shabana. Khan soon after arrival in Seattle created the Seattle Athletic Club and made it a focal point for squash in Seattle.

Shabana's younger sister, Latasha, was several time national women's champion before losing the title to Shabana, providing me the opportunity to joke in an earlier column, "best in the family is best in the county."

The looming reality for this unique local event is that Shabana and her supporting family have basically given themselves only a couple of months to decide whether it's worth the struggle (the event basically broke even this year) to attract thus-far absent support from either the City of Bellevue or local businesses.

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Shabana Kahn's efforts capturing squash-world attention

Shabana KahnShabana Khan, perhaps the most recognized women in the world in the fast-growing sport of squash, was honored last week in Philadelphia with the sport's most prestigious national award in recognition of her success in putting on the 2015 Men's World Squash Championship in Bellevue last November.

But despite her growing national, and international, recognition in bringing the world men's event to the this country for the first time, and for the series of squash events being scheduled in Bellevue over the next year, she is still struggling for recognition and support in the city she is seeking to turn into a global squash capital.

Khan, a lithe and athletic 48 year old who is former national women's squash champion and ranked among the world's best in her playing prime in the early 2000s, was honored in Philadelphia during the national squash championships with the 2016 W. Stewart Brauns, Jr. Award for major administrative contributions to the sport.
This season, under Khan's leadership working with PRO Squash Club in Bellevue, what the official publication of US squash describes as "an unprecedented skein of events" is planned for Bellevue, including four junior tournaments as well as a college showcase. To follow is a $200,000, sixteen-man pro tournament, described as "possibly the most lucrative event in tour history."

One of the prize events that will take place in Bellevue will be the first Bellevue Squash Classic in May, squash's equivalent of a PGA golf tour stop. The event, which will bring the world's best squash players to the Pacific Northwest, will showcase the four-wall glass court inside the Hidden Valley Boys and Girls Club, a location that Khan enthuses about.

When I first met and wrote about Khan a year ago, it was as she was struggling to make sure the men's event would come off as planned to fulfill her goals of providing Bellevue an opportunity to promote its role as host of a world-championship sports events, foster a sense of community involvement and support empowering a woman entrepreneur.

But as soon as Khan's challenges with dollars and event support came to light, developer Kemper Freeman provided her some financial support on the spot and Bellevue City Councilman Conrad Lee became her advocate in the quest to have the City of Bellevue participate. It was too late for that to happen, in part because it was too close to the time the world event was to take place.

But it's not too late for the city to get involved now for the coming year. That's something that would be a given in other communities that had the opportunity to have the brass ring as emerging center of what is becoming an increasingly popular sport in many places around the world.

As the men's world event quietly but successfully came about last fall, despite challenges with the Meydenbauer Center location, the leading world figures in squash, both players and presenters, began pressing Khan to create additional involvements. And those are coming to pass as she fulfills a request from Hong Kong to put on a squash event there, and in Los Angeles, where she will be guiding a major new event focused on young people.
In most places where it is played on a highly competitive level, squash is thriving. What was once known as a sport that was primarily for the wealthy could afford to is now more accessible to people of all income levels.

And with the growth of the sport and the accessibility to new squash players, the U.S., along with England and Egypt, are the three countries where the squash game is thriving most.

Khan founded YSK Events three years ago to bring the men's world event to the U.S. and has served as CEO since then as she and her brother Murad, as president, and sister Latasha as vice president for business development have turned it into what she hopes will be a full-service events company. Murad has played professional squash and it was Latasha who was national women's champion when Shabana defeated her to win the crown, providing me an opportunity to note in my column last year that "best in the family is best in the nation."

"Y" in YSK stands for both her 10-year-old daughter, Yasmine, who is always in her conversations, and her father, Yusuf, who was nine-time India champion when the Seattle Tennis Club hired him in 1968 to come to Seattle to be head tennis pro. Shabana was 2 ½ years old at the time. The "S" and "K" are for her initials.

It was her father who turned the Seattle area into a center for squash and it was he she partnered with to put on the Women's World Championship in 1999, the first time that event had ever been staged in the U.S.

"After hosting the Women's World Championships, I felt very confident in being able to bring the world's major squash event to this area," she told me, referring to last year's men's event.
"Additionally as a former player I wanted to take the sport to a new level and treat these amazing athletes how they truly should be treated," she said. "I had set out to create a new standard for the sport and expectation of the most prestigious event on the Professional tour."
But she noted that the most important consideration for getting the men's world event was that she wanted to thank her ailing father for his role in building the Seattle area into the center of squash in the Western U.S.
A laudable aspect of Khan's events is that they are focused on young people, from ages 11 to 19, giving them the opportunity to interact via Skype with the top squash pros in the world.
"In all the events, we offer free clinics for kids to work with the pros, who are amazing because they realize what we are trying to do and are working hard for them so they take the time with the young people," Khan said.
A key event will be the West Coast College showcase the second week of May, where high school squash players will be competing in what amounts to a recruiting show for college coaches, mostly from Ivy League schools but also a few western schools like Stanford.
Khan is looking for a major sponsor, as well as event sponsors, for her array of events since Wells Fargo, which had the $25,000 sponsorship and wound up with its name carried around the squash world as all the matches were streamed worldwide, has for various reasons not renewed.
"Bellevue is being recognized around the country and around the world so it seems fair to hope we begin getting some recognition in Bellevue," she said.

 
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