Carla Khan hails from arguably the greatest, most successful sporting family ever and what set her apart was that she was the only female of the family to take up her ancestral game.
The grand daughter of squash great Azam Khan, she chose to represent Pakistan despite being a British national but unfortunately had her aspirations turn sour due to lack of support from the administration of the game in the country.
She now spends her time coaching and exploring media opportunities after calling it quits from the game and revealed her story to Dawn.com from her apartment in Paddington, central London, in an exclusive interview.
Her mother Jacqui Stoter, the real pillar of strength for Khan during her toughest times, is at hand to relive the early days.
“Carla was a real star, from an early age she impressed all with her talent, after all squash was in her blood and she made an immediate impact at the junior level in England,” Stoter says passionately of her daughter’s achievements against all the odds.
Khan’s father Wasil Khan also played at the highest level and his performances inspired his daughter.
At the start of her playing days, however, the young girl had little idea about the phenomenal achievements of her family that produced as many as six world champions.
“I took up the sport after watching my father play, gradually I was told of the historic achievements of my family. I was extremely proud of their achievements and vowed to emulate their astonishing feats,” Khan says.
After making a mark at the junior level, Carla started playing professional squash, her goal was simply to join the Khan dynasty and add another world champion to their name.
“The competition was stiff in England, there were some talented players and I was at times given a tough run by the officials who were overwhelmed by the stature of my family.”
Carla decided to play for Pakistan at the age of 19 and by then she had made an impact with a string of noteworthy performances in the UK. She was ranked amongst the top five players in Europe and was regarded amongst the best talent in England.
She was initially received well by the Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF) and her supporters, however, it soon dawned on her that the competition in Pakistan was non-existent.
“There were hardly any girls on the circuit and even the ones who were playing were not of a high standard. I used to practice with boys and they used to queue up to play me.”
However, things started to turn ugly as politics and internal conflicts between the officials and the players arose.
“Just like England things turned sour in Pakistan, I was hardly paid any money; all my expenses were borne by my parents as there was no worthwhile sponsorship,” she recalls.
Khan though kept everything at bay and continued to impress on the court. She won most of the tournaments on the national circuit, besides triumphs in various Asian events.
Her professional career also included Pakistan Open, Ottawa Open, El Salvador Open, Iranian Open and Austrian Open titles. Her toughest opponent by far was the current World Number One, Nicol David of Malaysia, whom she defeated at the 2005 Irish Open.
“I broke in to the top 20 in 2004-5 and was harbouring hopes of reaching the top of the table. At this juncture my back gave in and the federation was not willing to support me.”
Khan continued playing though as her troublesome injury began to take a toll on her game.
Her body finally gave way when at the 2006 South Asian Games she collapsed during her match against an Indian opponent.
“I was so depressed, the pain was agonising and even the members of the Pakistani contingent turned a blind eye towards me. I was down and out and the worst was the lack of support by my own people.”
The back injury eventually forced Khan to give up professional squash; she was devastated by the cold treatment meted out to her by the greats of the game and the federation.
She made a brief comeback to the game in 2007, and it was a dream return as she took the Iranian and Austrian Open titles to break in the top 40s of the world. However, she retired from the tour in 2008 even as things started looking up.
The setbacks and rigours are well and truly behind her as she maps out her future.
“I think that I have made sacrifices for female players in Pakistan. In me they have an example of how to fight adversity and keep going despite heavy odds.”
She is proud of the fact that she showed a direction to the upcoming generation, when she started there was a handful of players, however, things have changed dramatically since then and players like Maria Toor have made her a role model.
Moreover, she has a burning desire of helping Pakistani women, “I feel I have left a legacy for the girls in Pakistan, and I have so many admirers there who have stood by me through thick and thin. I want to contribute for their welfare especially upcoming female stars.”
Khan is also keen on making a name for her in the electronic and print media. She is getting training in this regard and has already made an appearance on various media in UK.
“You never know one day I might be anchoring a television show in Pakistan,” she quipped as she summed up the first 30 years of her life.
She might have had a short playing career yet she is determined to make up by contributing for the welfare of women in Pakistan and around the world.