Despite the lack of support at Pakistan’s federal and provincial government level, the father and daughter duo of Mahboob Khan and Sarah Mahboob Khan are breaking barriers one step at a time, their hardwork and dedication towards tennis is both inspiring and refreshing. Sarah is currently the no. 1 ranked female tennis player in Pakistan. Though the talent and determination is ever present, she is backed by her father and coach, Mahboob Khan. Mahboob has been busy throughout his life in developing local talent and promoting the game of tennis through his coaching expertise. The two have become a force to be reckoned with in
the Pakistan’s tennis scene and have all eyes set on international glory.
We spoke to Sarah Mahboob Khan and Mahboob Khan, let’s see what they have to say.
Furqan: Thank you Mahboob and Sarah, we appreciate you both for taking out your time for this interview
Mahboob and Sarah: You are welcome
First of all, congrats to both of you as Sarah was recently honoured by the Pakistan Cricket Board on the International Women’s Day for her achievements as a tennis player, how does it feel and what does this mean to both of you?
It feels great. We are thankful to Allah for this recognition by the Pakistan Cricket Board. We thank the PCB and the Pakistan Super League (PSL) for this great initiative through which they are also recognising athletes from other sports, much needed.
Do you feel that more of these similar initiatives are needed where cricketing authories come out to help other sports in the country?
Yes, cricket is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the country, so in a way it is their responsibility to help other sports.
So this question is for you Mahboob, tell us about your relationship with Tennis, how and when did you first get involved with the sport?
Mahboob: According to modern standards I started quite late because I was also working, however, when I started I never looked back.
How can tennis grow in Pakistan?
Mahboob: In Pakistan we would like to see tennis in the school curriculum, so we can develop players at an early stage. And obviously better coaches, from a coaching point of view, coaches should be able to teach grips and swings, and they must be given the platforms to teach the players under the best training conditions.
Do you have any coaching program for the foreign players?
Mahboob: Yes, we do provide state of the art coaching support to the foreign players as well. We evaluate their current game and then make a plan for further coaching which includes technical-tactical corrections and point play situations.
So Sarah, did you inherit your tennis interest from your father or was it something else that drew you to the court?
Sarah: Of course, my father was the main source of inspiration, but once I got into tennis I started to enjoy it and now I am playing in and out every day, and giving it my all.
Tennis is considered a sport for the elite class in Pakistan due to the lack of community courts open to the public, what are the other reasons you think that are stopping tennis from taking off in Pakistan?
Sarah and Mahboob: Government needs to put more time, effort and money into tennis as it’s the second most popular sport in Pakistan, which not a lot of people know about. If Tennis is to progress, it must be included as part of the school curriculum, and coaches such as my dad who have produced national champions gain more recognition and avenues to teach and grow local talent.
Why aren’t there many International junior and Professional Tournaments held in Pakistan?
Primarily because lack of Sponsors. You need lots of money to hold such Tournaments and to provide prize money to the players. Tennis, unfortunately, is not considered at the same level as cricket. There are also inadequate tennis facilities so obviously not a lot to offer for international tennis and players.
Mahboob, what is it like working with your daughter at all times?
Mahboob: Sarah is a unique individual, no one is like her. She’s very special to me, and I like to be there for her all the time. And I’m glad I get to do that not just as her father but also as her coach, Mentor, and Manager.
How do you motivate Sarah to stay focused in the face of all surrounding challenges?
Mahboob: I’ve always taught Sarah the importance of self-belief. We’ve struggled a lot together and we’ve always managed to come out stronger. If you work hard enough and long enough, Allah will take notice, for Allah has not wasted anyone’s efforts.
And Sarah, you have had early success in your career when you became the youngest Pakistan National Champion at the age of 14, what were your feelings at the time?
Sarah: Great, seriously no words, I can’t describe how good it felt. It was a very special day.
How do you compare the opportunities for female tennis players in Pakistan at that time to now?
They have improved but we still have long way to go. As an example, the prize money is still very less when compared to the men’s format, so that’s definitely a great place to start.
Pakistan has had a lot of highlights at the international scene in men’s tennis: Aqeel Khan leading the win over Davis Cup favourites New Zealand in 2004, and Aisam Ul Haq reaching the double and mixed finals at the US Open in 2010. There were positives but where has it all gone wrong since then?
Pakistan has far more achievements in tennis but has always failed to capitalise on those achievements for many reasons. Firstly, there is no financial reward to pursue tennis as a career in Pakistan. The time, effort and money that goes into the development, training, traveling, accomodation, grooming, court hiring far exceeds any prize money in the National tournaments. And obviously, prize money is only earned if you win the tournament. Internationally, players receive a prize for even managing to enter any competition and eases some of the financial
distress. Our players are too caught up in a lot of struggles.
Secondly, none of these times which you mentioned in your question had the sponsors going like “yeah, tennis has potential”. The mindset
towards tennis needs to change, and marketing for tournaments must be top notch, so it can attract more people. And we cannot stress enough, that tennis must be included in school curriculums.
Despite showing promise and talent, why has female tennis not peaked at the same level in Pakistan?
Sarah: Locally, there is a huge difference in prize money to the men’s game, so financial prospects are limited. And international tournaments require financial backing for travel, accommodation and training and therefore the opportunities are bleakly making it difficult to participate in international WTA tournaments, let alone win them. Another problem is that in Pakistan no ITF Women Pro events are held, and we don’t have the needed funds to venture abroad.
When you look at international coaches, what makes them stand out from our coaches?
Mahboob: You will find my articles at world’s forums. We have some great coaches, however, the international coaches work under superior tennis environments: more players, world class tennis facilities, more tournaments, and more money.
What could be a good starting point at the grassroot evel to open more avenues and learning for the coaches in the country?
Mahboob: We need more players to work with. Another thing we could do is group coaching which is the norm worldwide. The government must invest in world-class facilities and private investors must take charge as tennis has a huge potential when it takes off.
Question for both, who are your tennis idols?
Sarah: Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova.
Mahboob: Khan. Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer.
How important has the influence of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Ash Barty has been on the women’s game especially in terms of visibility and competition?
Will add Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova to the list. They have taken the game of tennis to a different level. Their outspoken nature and competitiveness has helped female tennis to be taken seriously.
Is this the golden era in global tennis or there’s more to come even when the current legends finally hang their rackets?
Roger Federer is tennis. Without him tennis will struggle.
And Sarah you’re the only Pakistani female who’s tasted triumph in all types of courts, but personally which court do you enjoy the most?
Synthetic Courts, but I love grass too.
What are the most common types of court in the country
Clay, Grass, and Hard. We need more Synthetic Courts though.
Where is tennis most popular in Pakistan?
Lahore and Islamabad.
There is obviously a stigma around female sport, not just in Pakistan but all over the world, do you find yourself constantly having to challenge stereotypes?
Yes, it’s a constant struggle.
Why do these stereotypes exist in the first place?
We believe that’s because of ignorance. As a nation we need to mature so that there are equal training, competition, and financial opportunities for female players.
In the past, as we’ve heard, Pakistani players have had to sponsor their own travels and accommodation, is this still the case?
Yes, it’s all up to the individual or his/her family to make it happen. It is not easy to pursue tennis as a career in Pakistan unless you are really rich and passionate about the sport.
Sarah, if you had to pick your most memorable win in your career, what would that be and why?
My recent win against WTA player Ushna Suhail was so special as we both fought till the last point.
Mahboob, now the same question for you, if you had to choose a highlight from Sarah’s career, what would that be?
There are many, but her recent win against WTA player Ushna Suhail was so special. The match lasted 3 hours and gladly Sarah came out victorious.
Sarah, what do you consider to be your major strength in the game and what would you like to improve further?
I believe my strength is my double-handed backhand. I need to further improve my serve.
As the fitness trend still has a long way to go in Pakistan, what do you reckon are the best training regimes that aspiring tennis players can follow outside of gym to keep fit?
Running, rope skipping, sit-ups and push-ups.
What would you say to budding tennis players in Pakistan?
Work hard. Fix your technique. Listen to your coaches. Your time will come.
Any words for the foreign sporting community about Tennis in Pakistan that might reshape their perceptions about the sporting landscape in the country especially women in sport?
Whenever foreign players participated in our Coaching Program they loved it. Please come to us, we are here to help you.
Thank you so much for your time.
You are welcome.
If you are looking for a tennis coach, you can contact Mahboob Khan at +923008568403