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Vol. XXX No. 9, September 1-15, 2020

A Fine Squash Player, Fitness Fanatic and a Frugal Businessman – (Tribute)

by M.M. Murugappan

In the early hours of the morning of the 23rd of July, one of Chennai’s finest sports persons passed away in his sleep. Syed Ali Ispahani, 82 years of age, was known well amongst his family and close friends, mostly at the Madras Cricket Club, and of course his contemporaries in the Chennai and Bangalore property development business,but to the public at large he was unknown and unsung despite his various achievements in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He won the National Men’s Squash Championships twice, in 1969 and in 1972 and captained India at the 1971 World Championships in Australia.

Little was known in India of Ali’s proficiency in Squash since he played most of it in England alongside the finest in the sport then, Jonah Barrington, Geoff Hunt, Ken Hiscoe, to name a few who ruled World Squash.The British Open was, and perhaps still is the tournament every squash player aspires to win and in the years between 1967 and 1972, Ali made it to the last eight twice. He was a regular at the RAC and the Queens Club in London and played at the top of the league for these two clubs. Apart from playing and competing with the best in the world during his time, he built enduring friendships with the players that have all lasted a lifetime.

Ali played at the Madras Cricket Club courts whenever he visited India, mostly to see his parents in earlier years but over the last three decades split his time between London and Chennai, attending to his business interests in leather products and real estate in Chennai and Bangalore. While training in Chennai during his tournament playing days he would work on his fitness more than his game since the facilities at the MCC were old and limited with courts still with concrete floors whereas the world had changed to wooden floors. Yet he never complained,trained by himself since there was often nobody of his calibre to spar with, but always sought advice from the legendary marker Kuppan at the MCC who played bare footed but could give the champion Ali a tip or two relative to stroke selection and court positioning.

Syed Ali Ispahani.

It was in the early 70’s that I was fortunate to come under Ali’s tutelage. He would often play with me, Meyyappan Jr., and Rabi Venkatesan quite seriously but always had time to knock a few balls and also run aground very quickly with just a few rallies many a friend who asked him for a game. They soon moved on and left the court to Ali.

Ali was serious about training both on and off court. We would engage in different court drills and he would be very patient not to interrupt a rally to advise me of the correctness of stroke and would always emphasise that the game was played in the four corners of the court and how important it was to keep sight of the ball at all times. Little tips that stand even today when fitness has overtaken elegant stroke play and scoring has moved to either serve, in line with a world standard rather than British or American. Equipment has changed from finely crafted wooden racquets to polymer fibre material and the little rubber ball with the yellow dot remains but a shade faster than in yesteryear’s.

Squash took a toll on Ali’s back as he withdrew from active play but he always had the time to watch a youngster play on court and give him or her a little guidance. He was regular at the MCC pursuing swimming and fitness training until in recent times health did not permit him to train with vigour but he never let his spirit wane. Ali was equally involved and excited with his business interests and until his last he was discussing his next few projects with his team with childlike enthusiasm.The Ispahani Centre in the Centre of Chennai will remind the city not just of a fine family legacy but of an eminent sportsman and energetic businessman.

As he rests in peace our condolences,sympathies and support go out to his gracious wife Ranjini,delightful daughter Firuzeh,her wonderful husband Vinay and Ali’s older brother Mehdi who is now in Chennai but makes his home in Holland, and the entire Ispahani family.Ali was indeed a unique personality who mixed sport and business with equal dexterity.


  1. Vipul says:

    A very well written tribute. Ali uncle still remains an inspiration till date to my father and me. I remember how he fondly called my dad ‘Squirrel’ (referring to his ability to get to the Squash ball quickly on court) and me ‘Little Squirrel’. I always felt warmth whenever I met him and I will have a feeling of personal loss whenever I think of the grand old men whom I looked up to growing up in MCC.

  2. Khurram says:

    Such a nicely written tribute. I first met Mr Ispahani on his flight from Delhi to London. Being a cabin crew with Jet Airways I was a regular on that route but so was he. It was indeed my privilege that he spoke to me in detail about my career and lifestyle.
    After that everytime whenever he was in DELHI ,he used to call me. We uses to talk, in person or on calls. I am actually short on words and deeply shocked on his sudden demise. He was like a father figure to me, a guide, a mentor. I wish I had one last chance to say goodbye. May his Soul Rest in peace and May Almighty gives strength to his family.

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