Interview by RJ Mitchell
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In our series of interviews with the legends of squash it is the turn of New Zealand’s former World Champion Ross Norman to take centre stage.
It was on November 11, 1986, that the Kiwi ended the greatest unbeaten run in the history of competitive sport when he defeated Jahangir Khan in the final of the World Open at the Palais des Sports, in Toulouse, in front of 3,000 enthralled and disbelieving fans.
A career defining victory which ended Khan’s incredible run of 555 consecutive wins spanning an astonishing five and a half years brought to a shuddering end in a 9-5, 9-7, 7-9, 9-1 victory that shocked squash.
The Norman conquest was made even more impressive by the fact that the then World No.2 had to recover from a career threatening injury sustained in a parachute jump just three years earlier that had left him confined to a bed for two months.
But as he reflected on the moment he wrote arguably the most famous individual chapter in the history of our sport, down the line from his home near Ascot, Norman admits his crushing of the great Khan would never have happened had he not been forced to endure his prolonged period of recovery three years earlier.
“In 1983 I had an accident doing a parachute jump. As a kid my dad had been a pilot and I’d helped him out when he was taking parachutists out and I always fancied doing a jump myself. So, in ’83 it was the summer and I had a bit of downtime and I decided to give it a go,” recalled Ross.
“Unfortunately for me my landing was a nightmare and my knee cracked like an egg and I really thought that was it for me, that I would be lucky to walk again properly never mind play squash. Initially I was told I’d be in plaster from hip to toe for a few days but after the initial operation when I woke up, I had a bolt through my knee and that was a big shock believe me.
“The surgeon then explained that he had decided to follow the traction route and so for the next two months I was kept in traction either lying flat out or up in a sitting position. But in all honesty if it hadn’t been for that accident, I can honestly say I don’t think I would ever have won the World Championship.
“I turned pro back in 1980 and within a year I was in the top 10 and I hovered about between seven and nine for a while behind a group of the Pakistani players who were in Jahangir’s wake. Really, I was quite comfortable there, I was making decent money and I was established and then the accident happened, and it was like a huge wake up call.
“When I was stuck in that hospital bed in traction for two months it gave me a lot of time to think and my perspective changed. I knew then I needed to get out of my comfort zone, sure I realised that with Jahangir being the phenomenon he was, I was never going to get to No.1, but I knew if I rededicated myself I could get to No.2 and also I believed that on the right day I could beat him and these became my two goals.
Ross Norman with the World Open trophy
“So, I achieved both and you may say well how many times did you beat Jahangir and of course it was just the once but the answer is do you know how many great squash players there were that never beat him?”
Norman’s rededication and his all – embracing pursuit of Khan was perhaps best summed up by a quote the great Kiwi gave at the time as he continued to sustain a string of 30 consecutive defeats at Khan’s hands which would have mentally broken a lesser man: “One day Jahangir will be slightly off his game and I will get him.”
It was that ability to keep looking beyond the short term pain of another loss and to balance it out against the fact that, every time he went on court with Jahangir that the great Pathan knew Norman would never give in or backdown mentally, that was eventually to be rewarded by arguably the most famous single victory in squash history.
Norman recalls: “I must have played Jahangir Khan around 30 times and I played him in all the big finals the British, the Worlds, Germany, France and he was one very singled minded guy. I saw him break players, guys of the class of Gamal Awad and Dean Williams, Jahangir just ate them up and spat them out mentally.
“I remember playing Jahangir in the final of the Jersey Classic, which was a big deal back in the 80s and the match was live on TV. I got 4-0 up and thought things were looking promising and I never got another point after that and he could do that to you and for a lot of players that put a fear in them before they even went on court against Jahangir.
“But each time I played him I wanted Jahangir to feel that he had to work hard to beat me. Some players probably accepted the inevitable and maybe didn’t leave everything on the court when they played him, but that was never my approach. I was a stubborn sod myself and I adopted the approach that I would keep coming back, keep trying to get closer to him and that if we met and he was off the pace slightly then I would be ready to take advantage of that.
“I wasn’t physically as strong as Jahangir, but I always tried to give him it back just like he dished it out. For me I went in hard against him right from the start and tried to stay with him because he set such a phenomenal pace that no human being could sustain that when the clock started pushing close to two hours.
“I think when I did beat him it took something like one hour 49 minutes and for every minute of that I had to focus and stay strong mentally because Jahangir was always looking for a sign of weakness.”
After despatching Australia’s Chris Robertson in a four game semi-final, Norman was ready to take his brand of powerful dynamic attacking squash to Jahangir in an all-guns blazing approach that helped him gain the momentum from the off: “I went out hard in the first game and I think Jahangir was maybe surprised a little by how ferocious my approach was and after winning the first game I reassessed and was determined not to take my foot off the gas and I went out to do the same all over again.
“The second game was a tight affair but after I had won that my brother David came down to my corner and said, “You’ve just made history”, because nobody had taken Jahangir to five for a while.
“The third game was also close and from seven-all Jahangir closed out the last two points and to be honest I thought I’d maybe blown it. I had been two points away from ending his unbeaten run and winning the World Open at the same time and after the third I thought that might be as close as I got for a moment. But then I refocussed and early in the fourth I could feel he was tiring and after a couple of really brutal points I looked across at him and I knew he was busting up and after 30-defeats that was one nice feeling to have inside!.”
Ross Norman in action against Jahangir Khan
With victory in sight the enormity of what he was about to achieve started to dawn on Norman and it was then that he came up with a cunning plan to help himself stay in the present: “At 7-1 in the fourth game I pretended that I had one point less, just so that I could concentrate on the job in hand and carry on playing the way I had to get to that point.
“Obviously, I was so close to achieving the two great aims of my career that I could smell the victory and because of that and how much it meant my biggest fear was choking and thankfully that approach worked!“After that well the rest is history but when it really sank in it was a very special feeling and one no one can take away from me but what was almost as important to me was that after winning the Worlds I hung right in there and it is one of the biggest satisfactions for me that at 36, when I finally retired, I was still in the top-10.”
From his unique position in the pantheon of squash greats Norman has no doubt in advancing Jahangir’s claims as the games G.O.A.T or greatest of all time: “Was Jahangir the greatest player of all time? The answer for me is an emphatic yes,” fired Norman.
He continued: “Obviously, Geoff Hunt will have his supporters and I didn’t get to play him at his peak and then of course there is Jansher just behind Jahangir on the major winners board.
“Now Jansher was an interesting fellow. He had a completely different approach to his squash and what he was particularly good at doing with Jahangir was taking the pace of his ball and then when the opportunity came to attack, he would pounce.
“Jansher was a great mover and he was just like a sponge so when he played Jahangir it was like a meeting of water and fire and Jansher fed off Jahangir’s pace and that’s why I think he had such a good record against him.
“But for me you look at the record books and Jahangir has 10 British Opens and six World Championships in his back pocket and a five and a half year unbeaten record spanning 555 matches and that is a record that is unsurpassed in any modern sport and in my mind never will be broken.
“At his best for me he was just head and shoulders above the rest and the record books underline that.”