Young Pakistani squash players are displaying the kind of talent and drive that could see the country once again home to world champions in the future. But the lack of sponsorships is holding them back from their dreams.

Eid celebrations looked pleasantly different for some Pakistani children this year. There were no new clothes, no meeting friends and family, no eidi sneakily being given by grandparents. But what they got was better than eidi; they brought home gold — literally.

Five of the nation’s young squash stars topped the podium at the 2024 Australian Junior Open last month, with Pakistan’s overall haul also including a silver and a handful of bronze medals.

Pakistan swept the Under-17 category, courtesy Mehwish Ali and Ibrahim Zeb, while Mahnoor Ali and Huzaifa Shahid replicated the same feat in the U-13 division. Yahya Khan bagged Pakistan’s fifth gold medal in the Boys’ U-15 category.

Just days after battling it out with the world’s best junior squash players at the Melbourne Sports Centres, the humble champions are back to rigorous training and competing at national championships, where some of them have won big yet again.

As they gear up for a rigorous competition schedule this year, Eos spoke to them about their journey to success and what their future goals look like.

Young Pakistani squash players are displaying the kind of talent and drive that could see the country once again home to world champions in the future. But the lack of sponsorships is holding them back from their dreams

Mehwish Ali is easily one of Pakistan’s best female squash players, currently ranked No. 1 in the U-19 and senior categories, all at the tender age of 15.

It gets more impressive than that. Mehwish has a whopping 21 international and national gold medals to her name, including at the Asian Juniors and the Scottish Junior Open.

At the Australian Juniors, she clinched the women’s U-17 title in a nail-biting fifth tiebreaker, bouncing back from 6-3 to win 11-6 over Malaysia’s Xin Yii Lee. Squash Australia called it “one of the best matches on the glass court” that day.

Mehwish’s triumph came amid a slew of injuries, she told Eos.

“I told myself, ‘Mehwish, you need to win this match’,” she recalls. “‘This is your last chance, you won’t get a chance like this again. You’ve reached the finals. This is when you need to give it your best’, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Being mentally tough shapes you as an athlete more than physical strength does, she emphasised — a painful reality elite athletes know all too well.

Mehwish has her head squarely on her shoulders, like most of the world’s best athletes, whose ranks she aims to join. Making it to the Top 50 or Top 40 in the Professional Squash Association (PSA) rankings within the next five years is among her biggest career goals. She’s on track for it; she begins her PSA ranking this year.

The squash star comes from a family of champions, with sisters Sehrish and Mahnoor having added to Pakistan’s medal tally in Melbourne. Sehrish, 13, won bronze in the Girls U-13 category, while Mahnoor, who is only 11 years of age but who played in the same category, took home the title.

Mahnoor’s sporting career has so far mirrored that of her eldest sister, with a gold at the Asian Juniors and Scottish Juniors, amid several national titles and impressive plays at international championships.

While the younger two often battle it out in the same age category. Last weekend was Sehrish’s moment in the limelight as she won gold in the Women’s U-15 at the Jahangir Khan PSA Satellite Series 2024 in Karachi, while Mahnoor walked away with bronze.

Luckily, the siblings share a playful rivalry that sees all three of them learning from and supporting each other. Their pillar of strength is their father Arif Ali, a former squash player who coached the girls when they were younger and taught them that the sky’s the limit.

Mehwish has already turned her dreams into reality by becoming the first female Pakistani squash player to feature at the World Junior Squash Championships, to be held in Houston, USA, this July.

The boys have also set their sights on more international championships in the near future. Yahya has the classic goal of any teenage athlete, which is to ultimately become a world champion. But a more immediate goal is to compete at the US and British Junior squash championships.

As is the case with several Pakistani athletes, Yahya doesn’t have sponsorship, and the Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF) only sponsors athletes competing at world, Asian and British squash championships.

Yahya’s father, Asadullah, informs Eos that he’s financing his son’s international travels himself.

“Either way, whether we pay for these trips or the federation does, the win is in the name of Pakistan,” he says.

Both the dad and son are incredibly proud of the latter’s performance in Australia, with the 15-year-old admitting he had stiff competition from athletes from Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia. Despite a shaky quarterfinal, Yahya cruised to victory in three straight sets in both the semifinals and finals, beating Australia’s Henry Kross 11-3 to take the title.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim Zeb’s triumph in Australia adds to an already impressive portfolio. He’s won gold at the Manchester Junior Open, silver at the Qatar Junior and also made it to the quarterfinals of the Asian Junior championship.

“We get excellent exposure when we play against international players,” says Ibrahim, adding that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) provided financial scholarships for him to compete internationally.

The effortless wins from these young athletes are a product of training four to five hours daily, amid a backdrop of rigorous schoolwork. Mehwish is completing her schooling through online courses, while Sehrish and Mahnoor are homeschooled; all three train in the morning and finish their schoolwork after, while the boys head to the courts after regular school hours.

Credit goes to their parents for the quiet brilliance in the way they’ve navigated their children’s success. They’ve balanced being present for them without being suffocating, which their children are deeply appreciative of.

“I keep saying we’re blessed to have parents who never dampened our ambitions,” Mehwish says. She’s especially proud of her father for not being swayed by others’ misogynistic comments regarding his girls playing a predominantly male-dominated sport.

Former world squash champion Qamar Zaman, who won the prestigious British Open in 1975, says the young athletes’ wins in Australia are reflective of their hard work and training, which he regularly oversees at the squash courts in Peshawar. These athletes and their parents alike are grateful for his guidance and mentorship, which is in addition to his administrative oversight in the sport as vice president of the PSF.

“I conduct around 24 tournaments here in a year, especially for juniors and girls, so that they get the opportunity to rise up,” Zaman says.

Zaman also credits PAF for being the “backbone of squash”, since they’ve built more than 15 squash complexes in Peshawar.

The frontier town is home to global squash legends such as Roshan Khan, Jahangir Khan and Hashim Khan. When asked why that is, Mahnoor jokes that it’s because it’s in their blood, which Zaman echoes by saying that Pakhtun people are incredibly hard-working.

Pakistan has a goldmine of potential talent, aided by facilities that may not be world-class but are still adequate. It’s the lack of sponsorship that keeps athletes from competing regularly at the international level, which impedes their growth in the long run.

Huzaifa Shahid is another such wiz kid, who already has two international and eight national titles, and is ranked 14th in the Asian Junior U-13 category. The fact that he is just 12 is a testament to how much talent he has.

But what he doesn’t have is a sponsor, making it difficult for him to travel to international tournaments. His father has been financing his trips so far with the support of friends, but he’s at a dead end now.

“I’m thrilled that those with sponsorships can now plan out which championships they’ll compete at,” Huzaifa’s father Shahid Khan says.

“But I can’t make big plans like that for my son because I don’t have anything ahead of me. I have nothing.”

As a former squash player, he wants to give Huzaifa all the opportunities he never had, especially since Huzaifa has already proved his worth. But every attempt at securing sponsorship has been futile so far, and he’s now appealing to Karachi’s business community to lend a helping hand.

The Ali sisters have seen incredible athletes fade into oblivion because the lack of funding meant they couldn’t compete internationally, and that led to them bowing out of the sport altogether. Rather than focusing on the sport, this was often a constant anxiety at the back of their minds. Finally securing sponsorships for all three daughters this year let Arif Ali breathe out a massive sigh of relief. Shahid Khan is also eagerly hoping to feel the same relief.

Luckily, the next international competition is being held in Islamabad this June, offering a buffer for parents such as Shahid Khan to secure funding or scholarships for future events, while the young athletes continue their training grind.

It’s a shame that squash players find themselves on the opposite binary to cricketers, who earn in crores and don’t have to scrimp to finance international travels.

There’s no doubt athletes like these six youngsters are good enough to become world champions. The question is only whether Pakistan will bridge the financial gap before the stars lose their spark.

The writer is a member of staff, who is also a former member of the Pakistan swimming team and a South Asian bronze medalist. X: @yes_itsEngineer

An abridged version of this article was published in Eos on May 5th, 2024.

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