Bringing the game back

Pakistan’s squash sensation Ahsan Ayaz is sparing no effort to ensure that his nation is back at the top

ISLAMABAD: Growing up playing with racket and ball with his elder brother, repetitively hitting the black ball on a white wall, Ahsan Ayaz knew at the age of 10 that the splendid sport of squash was his destiny. No matter that all the other kids exhausted themselves playing the popular game of cricket. He knew he would be a squash player.

But little did he know that at 19, he would have already clinched the title of World No. 1 junior among many accolades earned in international tournaments in the UAE, Iran, Malaysia, UK, US and Canada.

The 170.18cm (5ft 7in) tall and talented left-hander from Peshawar showed his immense potential at the World Junior Squash Championship 2016 in Poland when Ahsan and team helped bring back Pakistan’s long lost glory in squash. “It was the most memorable and proud moment of my life when we lifted the world junior Championship trophy for Pakistan after 8 years in 2016,” Ahsan told Gulf News.

When the Professional Squash Association (PSA) men’s world rankings for April 2018 were released, Ahsan was ranked at number 87 in the world which made him the highest ranked squash player of Pakistan currently. Delighted at this achievement, Ahsan has now set his eyes on transforming the two digits into one. “I aim to become world number 1 squash player and make Pakistan number 1 at squash again.”

Ayaz has been a national junior champion 25 times and won 4 international junior and also 4 international senior squash events. He has also won the World Junior Squash Championship 2016.

What made Ahsan opt for squash, a game that was once popular in Pakistan, but is now struggling to regain its glory?

“My brother first took me to the squash court when I was 10 and I immediately fell in love with the racket and the thrill of chasing the ball,” said Ahsan.

He wanted to play squash and bring home professional titles, as Pakistan has in the past claimed over 30 British Open titles (the most prestigious tournament) and 14 world championships.

“I have been training for almost five hours every day for the last five years, which involves court plus field and gym training,” he said.

Equally good in academics

The 19-year-old has a bachelor’s degree in Double Maths and Computer Science from Fazaia Degree College and believes there is no reason an athlete cannot excel in both sports and studies. “It’s possible to do well in both as long as you have a goal in mind. After all, my college was the first platform to demonstrate my sporting skills,” Ahsan said.

He credits his success to his family, teachers as well as friends and mentors from Pakistan, US and Spain. “It was never just an individual effort. I am indebted to my parents, siblings, teachers, the Pakistan Squash Federation and my official sponsor Magnus Sports (Pakistan’s first global sports agency) for the trust and support that has shaped me into who I am,” he said.

Hailing from the city of Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has produced several world champions including Hashim Khan, Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan, the young champion is eager to revive Pakistan’s squash splendour. “To reclaim our lost glory, we have to establish modern squash academies that offer world-class training opportunities with steady support from the government and promote the sport at the grassroots level,” he said.

He lamented the fact that young promising players like Asim Khan, Tayyab Aslam and Shahjahan Khan, who have passion and dedication for the game however lack training to excel at competitive international events.

But Ahsan prefers to not play the blame game. Instead, the spirited sportsman has decided to launch a sports federation to help the underprivileged aspirants realise their hidden potential. The foundation is aptly called AAS (which means hope in Urdu) and also the abbreviation for Ahsan Ayaz Sports.

“With the help of family and friends, I have initiated the foundation in Pakistan but aim to take the idea forward to other developing countries,” he said.”

Counting on his mother’s blessings

Ahsan, the youngest of four siblings, is fortunate to have found both physical and mental coaches in his family itself. His elder brother, Zeeshan Ayaz, (also a professional squash player) is his practice partner. His father who has been helping him with the mental exercises to improve performance, also supports him financially at times. He’s eager to see his youngest son be able to represent Pakistan on the global stage.

“The smiles on their faces and their encouraging words are just the motivation I need,” says Ahsan.

Remembering his biggest supporter and friend, his mother, who passed away six months ago battling cancer, the squash star said the last few months have been extremely painful for him. “She was my best friend, the one who patched me up as a clumsy kid and eased my heartaches. I miss her the most when I am playing international tournaments.”

The pain of losing a parent is crippling, Ahsan says, but he channelled this pain into a passion to reach the highest level of sport as he achieved his best ranking yet in April 2018. “I know she wanted me to excel at sports, and in life.”

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