With long ties to Seattle area and Microsoft, squash attracts new interest — and a ‘Tech Challenge’

Professional squash players compete in last year’s invitational in Bellevue, Wash. (YSK Photo)

The top men and women squash players in the world will return to Bellevue, Wash., — a longtime hotbed for the sport — for an invitational tournament near the end of the month. They’ll be joined by techies teaming up to challenge each other in yet another activity that draws upon the diverse population attracted to the Seattle region by the booming tech business.

The Yusuf Khan Invitational is named for the late patriarch of a family of squash greats. Khan, who died last October, was originally from what is now Pakistan and he was a past champion in India before moving to Seattle and spending his life making the sport a mainstay in the area. Khan’s family, in which four of his eight children turned professional, has taken up that mantle.

For the uninitiated, squash is a racquet sport played on a four-walled court, with a small rubber ball. Matches are between two players, or four in doubles play.

The tournament, which runs Aug. 26-30 at the Boys & Girls Club Hidden Valley in Bellevue, is sponsored by Pacific Market International and Dave Cutler — a squash player who also happens to be a legend of computing and the developer of Microsoft Windows NT.

Official poster for the Yusuf Khan Invitational. (YSK Image)

The Khans helped stage the squash world championships in Bellevue in 2014, as well as other events.

“A lot of our support came from the tech industry,” said Murad Khan, one of Yusuf Khan’s sons and an event organizer. “We saw a huge growth of squash players come from the Eastside. Microsoft has a huge squash following that we never even really understood was there until we started advertising the sport with all these big players and big names coming into town.

“It drew everyone out of the woodwork and the program’s exploded,” Khan added about YSK Events, the family-run non-profit with a mission of promoting the game of squash and creating a pipeline for young athletes who can use the sport as a springboard to higher education.

Khan guessed that there are about 1,200 squash players using the PRO Club where his brother Azam directs a world class program. Of those, 80 or 90 percent are tech workers, mostly from Microsoft, he said.

“Squash is a sport that challenges the player mentally, like physical chess. There’s a lot of strategy involved and I think that’s what really draws these tech guys in. It’s like a mental release for them,” Khan said. “We have these guys at Microsoft that love to analyze stuff. They’ll come back after matches and they’re like, ‘That person changed the pace here, and they started hitting the ball over here.’”

The Tech Team Squash Challenge has eight two-player teams confirmed so far, with seven from Microsoft and one from Amazon. YSK is still trying to land teams that have shown interest from Google and Tesla. Each team will be assigned one of the 12 professional players as their third team member. The professional players’ matches in the evening will count toward team point totals. At the end of the week, the first annual Tech Team Squash Challenge champion will be crowned.

Bellevue has attracted some of the top squash players in the world at previous events. (YSK Photo)

Ulrich Homann, a Microsoft exec who is a corporate vice president in the Cloud and AI business, has been playing squash since 1997, when he started learning with Azam Khan. He’s partnering with Justin Steventon, a longtime Microsoft engineer, and the two are being sponsored by Scott Guthrie, executive VP of the Cloud and AI group.

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“Due to the heavy influence of India and other key squash nations in technology, squash is wildly popular as a workout mechanism at Microsoft and throughout the entire technical sector as we all share an ever more international talent pool here in Seattle,” Homann said. “I believe it is fair to say that Microsoft started the squash trend on the Eastside — obviously strongly supported by the passion and talent of the Khan family, in particular Azam.”

Homann said growing investments from companies such as Google and Facebook in the region have kept the sport growing in popularity. He said he and Steventon are very passionate about the sport, and they’re competitive — Murad Khan called Homann a bit of a “ringer.” The team intends to make a strong showing for Microsoft.

“As this is a broader tech challenge, we invite and love the competition with other tech companies and teams and obviously want to show our best side both for the sport and Microsoft,” Homann said.

Learn more about the professional players, the tournament format and how to get tickets at the Yusuf Khan Invitational website.