Breaking Cultural Boundaries
PROFILE OF A UNIQUE SQUASH PLAYER AND PERSON
It’s a long way from Australia to Pakistan as the crow flies. But in cultural terms, the difference is light years. An Australian woman can play any sport she damnwell pleases without raising an eyebrow. In Pakistan traditional values frown – a deep, furrowed frown – on a woman participating in any such masculine activities, such as squash.
Carla Khan knows all about those deep-routed prejudices, even though she is a second generation Brit. She was born in London, like her father Wasil. His father -Carla’s grandfather - is the great Azam Khan, brother of Hashim, the two legendary players who started the Khan dynasty in squash 50 years ago. While her father and mother provide unlimited encouragement in her dream to become world champion, granddad Azam does not approve. It is not something she can shrug off with a ‘to hell with you’ attitude. One of the Pakistan cultural values that she adheres to and enjoys is that of the family as the center of life.
“I still live at home with my family and I love it and need it,” says the 24 year old Carla. Of her grandfather she says simply: “I don’t have much contact with him.”
Carla was always aware of the glorious family history in squash but didn’t start playing until she was 12 years old.
“I used to watch my Dad play squash and he was quite happy to let me play, because he is westernized. It is only the older generation who think that women should not play squash,” she explains. “Attitudes have changed in Pakistan now and they have a women’s team and in Lahore there are about 60 women players.”.
She was coached first by her father and then by other Pakistani coaches.
“When I started I said I wanted to be number one and everybody laughed at me. I was the most unco-ordinated person ever – it took me about two years to hit the squash ball,” she remembers.
Her father then thought it was time to expose her to an English coach so Carla went to Neil Harvey, the former England international who has become one of England’s most successful coaches.
“ Neil was a really good experience because I had to live away from home. It was good to be independent. I’m very close to family and like to spend a lot of time at home. It was good to be in that intense environment with other professional squash players. Pakistani coaches are really strict – more like army training. Neil was a bit more constructive. His technique is very different. His way with the swing is very different from how I was taught by my dad. It was quite hard to adjust to that in the beginning. Neil gives a lot of discipline and he is good with fitness,” Carla claims.
But she lives with a problem that other players don’t have:
“The culture difference is always there; even though I was brought up in England I’ve always got this big issue coming from this fantastic family. There is always this difference between England and Pakistan. Everywhere I go there is always ‘Is she English or Pakistani?” or ‘Why is she playing for Pakistan?’. I’ve had to get tough pretty quick – with a lot of help from my mum.”
It was when she played in the Wimbledon Cup that she met up with her present coach Jeremy Colton. From his first sight of her he was impressed by her skill.
“She had tremendous flair: her ability with the racket is next to none. She has a tremendous attacking game and can hit a nick off the lampshade, Colton says with enthusiasm.
He invited her back to the club, had a talk and they came to an agreement on his taking on the job of her coach.
“We are concentrating on her movement and technique. What we are doing now is getting Carla to create the opportunities to use her attacking talent. In the past top ten players have forced her to the back of the court, so we have to try and get her to the front to use her shots,” Colton explains.
The year 2005 started off well for Carla and she won the Pakistan Open, beating Sharon Wee in the final. (Her best win to date was beating Nicol David last year in the Irish Open). She was beginning to chalk up important wins and then fate stepped in; she started to feel strangely tired, and she knew something was wrong. After a month a doctor finally diagnosed glandular fever and advised to rest for three months.
“It’s one of those illnesses that you never quite know whether it has gone or not. Maybe she came back to quickly, but after a couple of false starts, we think she has got over it and we are back to full training,” Colton says.
Her ranking dropped from 21 to 28 during her six months out of the game, but she is more determined than ever to make the top ten by the end of 2006.
“My fitness is the big job. Lack of fitness prevents me from pushing forward. I’m starting to do a bit of running as well as court sprints,” she says, the lack of enthusiasm for that sort of thing evident in her half smile and voice. But there is a problem with diet too.
“I don’t have a nutritionist and I have a foot in both cultural worlds. I eat fish and chips, roast dinners, and I also eat curries - a bit of everything. We’re working on my diet. I’ve always done things my own way but its time to get a bit of discipline,”
she says. “ I want to be world champion. I really want it. I’ll even give up curries.”
Colton confirms this: “Yes – she is now very focused. She’s doing quality work and she’s pushing on hard.”
On top of that the Pakistan Squash Federation have recognised her potential and are helping her with hard cash to help pay for her flights. She will be moving from Head rackets to the new Vantage racket in January, with the new contact offering performance related cash bonuses rather than just equipment.
So the year 2006 approaches full of hope for the bi-cultural player. You can’t help wondering what Azam Khan and her uncles will say when she does reach the top echelon and perhaps even becomes world champion. But we all have a pretty shrewd idea what Carla Khan would like to say to them.
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