NATICK — Mahmud Jafri dreamed of finding a site to expand the single squash court at his Dover home into a larger facility where more players could embrace the sport he grew up playing in Pakistan.
His dream has come true.
Last month, Jafri welcomed four Pakistani players and their coach to his club, Dover Squash & Fitness on Route 9 in Natick. It will be their home training base for a national circuit of competitions that will conclude in late March.
The trip is funded by the Pakistani Squash Federation and through a series of events hosted by Jafri.
The club will hold a special reception Jan. 14 to help defray lodging, boarding, and travel expenses for the Pakistani players: brothers Amir and Danish Atlas, Nasir Iqbal, and Farhan Zaman.
“What we hope to do is help the players improve their skills and improve their international ranking as professionals, to give them an even playing field,” said Jafri, who purchased the popular Route 9 landmark Fairway Bowling, miniature golf and driving range complex from longtime owner Helen Sellew after it closed in May 2011.
The building, built on the site of the Sellew family’s dairy farm and used for candlepin bowling since 1955, is now the renovated showroom for Jafri’s third-generation family business, the Dover Rug Co., and he set up his club next door. The new facility includes the Dover Squash Academy, managed by head professional Paul Mathieson, and Dover Yoga. The academy offers lessons for player development, camps and clinics, and serves as the home court for the squash team at the Fay School in Southborough.
The Pakistani contingent at Dover Squash & Fitness includes the national team’s coach, Jamshed Gul, and assistant coach Arshad Burki. Mathieson, a former British champion, is also coaching the visitors.
Jafri arranged for 11-time French national champion Thierry Lincou — who recently moved to Needham — and South African pro Clinton Leeuw to work out with the Pakistanis.
“Pakistan dominated the sport internationally from the 1970s into the 1990s,” said Jafri, who played college squash in Pakistan and moved to the United States at age 20 in 1974, when a pair of Pakistanis, Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan, were the world’s top-ranked professionals.
However, political instability in Pakistan has created an atmosphere of uncertainty that limits opportunities for the country to host major tournaments, or for its many talented players with professional aspirations to obtain travel visas to take part in international competitions.
“It’s not a question of talent,” said Jafri, who built his home court for friends and family, but over time welcomed other players. “Pakistan’s players in recent years have played mainly in the Far East and in the United Arab Emirates, but when the number of tournaments you play is relatively low, it affects your world ranking and your status, a lot like the world tennis point system.”
Burki, who has lived in Natick since March, was Pakistan’s U-19 and national champion in 2001 and 2002. He turned pro 13 years ago, and is focusing on coaching and training as an assistant at the academy.
He said the exposure to world-class coaches and players at tournaments in the United States and Canada will enhance his coaching skills and his return to the pro ranks.
“It’s an exciting time for the players who will fine-tune their games and for me as a role model to our younger players,” said Burki, ranked 52d in the world from 2004 to 2007. “There’s a great sense of optimism about being here.”
Zaman, who will turn 21 in March, placed second at the 2010 World Junior tournament in Ecuador, helping Pakistan finish third overall.
“It’s a joy, an honor and a privilege to represent my country,” said Zaman, who is staying with his cousin, Shahid Zaman, head professional at the Boston Tennis & Racquet Club. “It’s a huge motivation and it will make me work twice as hard to hopefully get a top-50 ranking someday.”
Squash is played on a walled indoor court (the doubles court is larger and higher). Shots must land above a metal strip on the front wall, and all four walls can be used. Considered the world’s most aerobic racquet sport, it originated in England and is being considered as an Olympic sport.
Its origins in Pakistan date to British colonial rule in the late 19th century.
“Like many of us in Pakistan, squash is a family tradition for me,” said Zaman, who broke into a wide smile when describing his passion for the sport. “It’s a true test of endurance and fitness, and if you pass the test often enough you have earned the respect you deserve.”
Jafri, who began informal discussions with the Pakistani Squash Federation two years ago, has also shown respect to Sellew, who reluctantly closed Fairway’s doors.
She had hoped the building would not be torn down and that the 33,000-square-foot property would continue to be used at least in part for recreational purposes.
So today the sounds of bowling balls rolling down 32 alleys and sending pins flying have been replaced by the quieter sounds of squash balls bounding off walls and racquets at Jafri’s three courts.
“People have a nostalgic and warm feeling about Fairway Bowling that they continue to express to me, and in fact I used to bring my children there for their birthday parties,” said Jafri. “So there’s a personal connection to the property.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” he said, “to be able to bridge a sport from the past to the future of a sport I have loved all my life.”Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.