Anil Nayar may be a US Squash Hall of Famer, and often called “India’s greatest squash player”, but his story is about much more than the beautiful game. From migration, to living through the civil rights movement, raising a family, dominating at the game and eventually passing on his knowledge to the younger generation.
In this exclusive, Anil Nayar talks to the Sportageous team about his lifelong journey between India and America, the future of the game in both his adopted home and his place of birth, and of course, his biography “Lucky – Anil Nayar’s Story”, written by his wife, journalist, Jean Nayar.
Zushan Hashmi: You never joined the game at a professional level. Why was this the case?
Anil Nayar: I came from a comfortably affluent middle-class family in India, and when I started playing squash in 1960, the status of a professional was that of a ‘marker,’ a role that connoted a servile rank.
And during my time in the U.S., I noticed professional players and coaches used the side doors to enter or exit clubs, as squash was still predominantly an amateur game at the time and played mostly in private clubs.
Neither my family nor I would have been at ease with this status. Also, the purses for those who played as pros were very modest, so the level of compensation and the lifestyle wouldn’t compare to the career path that my family’s background in business had prepared me for.
American squash professional, John Musto recently pointed out to me that the situation in the U.S. began to change in the late 1970s, when good players from Ivy League schools created a pathway to play professional squash, at least for a few years, before moving on to corporate employment or staying with squash as club coaches.
I may have considered this option if I hadn’t returned to India in the ‘70s and was 10 or 15 years younger.
Yusuf [Khan] was the kind of coach I needed when I started to play squash: Gentle but firm, not intimidating but demanding. A group of us spent a lot of on- and off-court time together with Yusuf.
If you could summarise it, what do you believe makes squash the game that you spent your life loving and playing?
It’s the physical excitement, the stretch, the short sprint, the sudden lateral movements, the breathlessness. It’s also the mental charge, that drop shot that you so wish nicks,the thrill of the parallel that on its second bounce lands in the back corner.
It’s the mischievous black ball that every now and then plays tricks on you by doing something unexpected. It’s also that same black ball that gives you a sense of solace and relaxation just by looking at it as you do solo practices during trying times.
Most important, though, it is the close quarters in which the vigorous play takes place that fosters mutual respect for your opponent, teaches fairness, and encourages camaraderie and lifelong friendships.
This was, of course, at a time when squash was recognised far more globally, the likes of Jonah Barrington, and the Pakistanis dominated the game. You, of course, knew them well and hosted them in the U.S. Are there any stories you would like to share with any of these players?
I remember Jahangir Khan in the world championships in 1979 in Australia. Jahangir, then just 15 years old, was a reserve on the Pakistani team but opted to play in the individuals. As a reserve, I noticed, he didn’t get a lot of respect from his teammates.
A couple of times I found him sleeping outside the door of his hotel room. Jahangir just barely won his first match in a gruelling five games against the master Swedish retriever Lars Kvant. Jahangir was duking it out with him, chasing everything down and quite defensive until, later in the match, when he won a couple of key points hitting devastating backhand drives and backhand drop nicks.
Jahangir barely won the next round but I saw he was getting stronger mentally and more confident of his racket skills. And so it went, each round he played. He won the world championship and this break catapulted him to becoming the best in the world for a decade-plus. I think of that tournament as the ‘making of a champion.’
I feel excited and delighted at the improvements Indian Squash has made in the last 20 years. And it has the potential to be so much better…maybe even generate world champion players.
For you personally, hardball or softball, you played both and dominated at both, but if you could pick one, which would it be and why?
I enjoyed both hardball and softball. Each one has its merits and the squash we see now has a little bit of both—the point system and the lower tin, which encourages stroke play as hardball did, and the international size court and a slightly livelier ball, which encourages rallies experienced in the original softball game.
What was it like having the great Yusuf Khan as your coach? Could you tell me a little bit about that time?
Yusuf was the kind of coach I needed when I started to play squash: Gentle but firm, not intimidating but demanding. A group of us spent a lot of on- and off-court time together with Yusuf.
From him, we learned the importance of footwork and racket preparation; of lining up to hit deep parallels and cross courts and delicate drop shots and lobs. Yusuf repeatedly encouraged us to be patient. And we learned of the importance of fair play.
How does it feel to see squash growing in India, with players on both the mens and womens sides breaking into the top 50 and even top 25 of the PSA World Tour?
We’ve come a long way. I feel excited and delighted at the improvements Indian Squash has made in the last 20 years. And it has the potential to be so much better…maybe even generate world champion players.
It’s been done in badminton, so why not squash? Indian squash needs the right ingredients: dedicated coaches, homegrown preferably, and organisations that spend more time and resources on the players than on anything else.READ Wadan Durrani on football dreams in a Pakistan village
Tell me a little bit about the differences in playing the game in the USA as compared to that in India? (Ie. the competition, the style of play, the weather and the environment?)
Practice games and ‘club’ games are usually more casual and less intense in India, kind of like socializing and playing in equal parts. In the U.S., all practice and club games were taken seriously with high intensity in the mid-60s.
The situation now has probably changed towards more intensity in India, too. In matches, the intensity is the same in both countries as it is around the world. You’ve probably seen Lisa Sthalekar, the Indian-born Aussie cricket star. She cuts, chops, and covers drives with abandon. An Aussie commented that she does not play like an Aussie.
The same is true with Indian squash players. They are prone to more creativewrist play, or a ‘wait’ and hit’ approach, than the American players.
Around the time you were playing squash in the US, Anil, did you ever come across or experience any racism? While in a global context, the sport was quite diverse with people from all over competing was it necessarily the same in the US?
I had a sensitivity to discrimination and racism borne of my experience as a child in school. Even though India was independent almost a quarter of century by the time I graduated from college, it took up until the 1970s for the vestiges of colonial control to disappear.
My school charter gave preference to foreign kids for admission; the principal and various teachers were usually from the United Kingdom. People who spoke English with British accents were given more importance than those who spoke Indian-accented English.
Breach Candy Trust and Bombay Gymkhana had policies at one time that discouraged Indians to join or be a part of management.
As a result of this experience, on my first jaunt overseas to play the Drysdale Cup in London in 1965, I was particularly sensitive to the possibility of rejection on the basis of my background as an Indian.
When I was not allowed to practice at the RAC courts before the tournament, I told myself and my teammate this is exactly the behaviour we expected. Fifty years later, in a phone chat with Chris Orriss, a fellow British competitor, I was told that the RAC did not allow court practice for anyone who didn’t belong to the club, including him. It took 50 years to debunk my conviction.
Harvard could have been daunting. The American directness of speech was a struggle to interpret in a non-judgmental manner. But I quickly realized, partly thanks to my mother’s teachings of patience, resilience, and reservation of judgement, the instinct to expect that kind of rejection was a complicated matter to cope with and that relationships had to be given time to mature or not. I made some outstanding friends at Harvard.
In my junior year in 1968, my white, blond-haired roommate, Tom, and I decided to move to Roxbury in Boston for a year. For me, it was an experiment in living in a Black section of the U.S. It was also the same year that Martin Luther King was killed.
We left our home there for a few days when riots, shootings, and protests erupted on Dudley Street after Dr King was shot. After we returned a couple of days later, there was a knock on our door. With some apprehension, Tom, my roommate, opened the door and was greeted by a Black neighbour with a pleasant face, who calmly wanted to know if we were OK and stated that if we needed anything we should let her know.
While at Harvard, I was readily invited to stay in the homes of many white Americans while I played tournaments. When they visited America, my parents were also welcomed with a large dinner party hosted in their honour by Stuart Brauns, a top official in U.S. Squash.
In looking back, and as Jean was writing the book, it occurred to me that I was well prepared to mingle with those of different colours and backgrounds. My mother’s unequivocal advice of patience, resilience, and judgement restraint was pivotal. Also, the fact that I understood the British—their behaviour patterns, their strengths, and most importantly, their vulnerabilities while at school, at Harvard, and when I came back to India for almost a decade in 1971, enabled me to navigate different cultures and points of view with relative ease.
Associations, connections, and friendships have to be worked on throughout one’s life, in the same way, that filial or marital relationships do. I worked hard on all these relationships.
The Dalai Lama has talked about the idea of “global brotherhood” and I quoted him in my speech when I was inducted into the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame speech. His thoughts reflect my attitude and are recorded in the book Jean wrote about my life and squash career:
“We need to make sure that global brotherhood and oneness are not abstract ideas that we profess, but personal commitments that we mindfully put in practice.”
Racism exists and I do not think for one moment that it does not. Its history and roots are knotted and complicated, requiring a lot of learning and mutual understanding by both Blacks and whites, as well as other people involved in every aspect of that history. I am not a victim of that history.
On that note, having worked with young squash players in India and the U.S. what is the future of the game in both these countries?
There is a lot of excitement both in India and the U.S. The U.S. has a come a long way in its planning of Promise Centers (the first one is the Arlen Specter Center in Philadelphia) and Community Centers, which will open up facilities to those who may never have heard of squash before. In addition, the initiatives of the Squash + Education Alliance and its numerous affiliates that focus on recruiting disadvantaged inner-city kids to its centers for both squash play and supplemental academic tutoring are changing the sport.
It is the close quarters in which the vigorous play [of Squash] takes place that fosters mutual respect for your opponent, teaches fairness, and encourages camaraderie and lifelong friendships.
Similarly in India, numerous centres with coaches have opened, including the very effective Indian Squash Federation Center in Chennai. In both countries, the goal is to democratize the sport, i.e. make it more mainstream than it is. I believe these developments will create channels to grow in an organic manner.READ Tatiana Saunders: Lewes FC goalkeeping and a finance career
Recently, your wife, Jean, authored Lucky—Anil Nayar’s Story, can you tell me a little bit about what the process of having a book written about you was like?
I never imagined a book being written about my career and life, but Jean, who’s a journalist and author, saw my story as unique and thought it was worth documenting my history and pioneering legacy with the sport as well as chronicling the evolution of the sport itself during the time I played over 40 years or so. She felt the Indian side of squash, including my part of the story, deserved more attention than it’s had historically.
I think she’s right about that. It was a fascinating journey because Jean pushed me to reflect deeply on many aspects of my life and in the process she learned more about me and the sport of squash while I learned more about storytelling and writing.
After the book came out, I was able to reconnect with so many legendary players who read it and related to my experiences either directly or indirectly. I also heard from people who never played squash yet found compelling touchpoints to their own lives through the historical or cultural crosscurrents we shared.
And a bit about the book itself?
Since Jean is a writer, though not a sportswriter, and she is also my wife, she was in a unique position to tell my story in a way that focuses as much on the broader socio-cultural issues that were going on during the course of my career as it does on the sport.
She relied on books, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings as well as interviews with a lot of fellow players and coaches in both India and America to paint a clear picture of the sports side of the story.
Yet, as a result of her close relationship with me and my friends and family in two countries, she was also able to portray a vivid and quite personal view of two cultures in India and America, which makes the story accessible to people who know nothing about squash but are interested in people and events from different parts of the world.
Many people argue that squash has gotten it all wrong in the modern world with increasing commercialisation and globalisation of sport, where do your thoughts lie in this regard and what do you think?
Squash has commercialized and globalized and it should continue on this path. It’s the most under-recognized game in the world and it needs a higher profile place, rightly so, amongst other racket sports.
At the grassroots level, healthy initiatives are taking place. On the championship front, the prize money needs to grow considerably, at least four times its present level.
A case point: El Shorbagy was awarded only $25,000 upon winning the Tournament of Champions in Grand Central in New York in early 2020.
When you look back at the game, do you think as a body, it could have done something differently or is it on the right trajectory in terms of where it is today?
Squash now, as in its past, enjoys a loyal if relatively low level of participation and following. It has had some peaks and valleys (like the one we have now because of the pandemic). To get it to the next level, though, we need increased viewership through a holographic-type exposure that would make squash fascinating to watch.
Pretty soon viewers will watch, on-site and off-site, matches and players in a 3-dimensional format. This will add significantly to the popularity of squash, and to the purse sizes, which in turn will attract more talent to the game. I’ve also read a relatively recent report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association that said that squash was the 12th fastest growing sport in the U.S. I think dwindling or expanding participation may depend on what part of the world we’re talking about.
What are you up to nowadays and what do you do outside of squash?
I’m involved with Khelshala, an NGO in Chandigarh, India, to some extent. Satinder Bajwa founded the boutique yet very successful organization to empower poor city and rural girls and boys through education and sport. Over the last five years, I have noticed some amazing changes in the kids’ confidence levels.
I am also physically active to the extent my body allows. I practice Pilates and yoga with Jean and ride my bike with my good friend Hassan Tabbah. My right hip has started to act up, but I anticipate hitting some balls on my own against the bang board in the community tennis courts nearby or at a squash court 10 miles away.
Zoom calls with my two sons and four grandkids keep me enjoyably occupied, too.
And, lastly, the enjoyment and tensions of ageing, specifically of becoming a better person, do take energy!