Played well, the international game of squash is more physically
punishing than tennis and requires far more racket skill than
racquetball. It has all the bending and leaping of top-level
badminton, the most aerobically taxing of all racket sports.
Matches demand unending sprints around the court in pursuit of
the ball, which seems--like you, especially as your legs give
out--to want to die in a corner rather than bounce up one more
time. The fitter player usually wins, but the real beauty of the
game lies in the players' ability to kill the ball with outright
winners. That is the domain of world champions such as
Pakistan's Jansher Khan and Australia's Michelle Martin.
Martin, 29, was given her first racket at age three by her
parents, who built and operated a public squash center in
Sydney. She claims the racket "still feels like an extension of
my arm." By alternating formidable pace with beautifully struck
kill shots into the side wall nicks (where the floor meets the
wall), Martin has won four consecutive British Opens (the squash
equivalent of Wimbledon) and three World Open titles. She took
over the No. 1 spot in the women's world rankings in early 1993
and since then has won about 170 matches, while losing only
eight, a record that Steffi Graf (who is 231-18 over that
period) would admire.
Nonetheless, Martin has no sneaker endorsement, and she recently
turned down a clothing contract because she felt the offer was
ridiculously low. "We'd like squash to be an Olympic sport," she
says. "It's played all over the world. I mean, beach volleyball?
They play doubles and have two-shot rallies, and they make more
than we do? It's pathetic! As for the clothing and shoe
contracts, I'm a world champion, and I'm not going to wear their
clothes or shoes for almost nothing. That's why my mum makes all
my squash clothes. She's starting up her own company now."
While the world's top tennis players can earn $500,000 in a
single event, total prize money at the 70 tournaments on the
men's 1996 pro squash tour was $1.4 million. The total for the
30-tournament women's tour was not quite $500,000, of which
Martin's take, so far, is approximately $50,000. As a result,
squash has few prima donnas. The players travel a lot, sleep
where they can, train hard and play as if obsessed.
Until recently the Mount Rushmore of international women's
squash had only two faces: that of Australia's legendary Heather
McKay, who won the British Open every year from 1962 to '77 and
did not lose a match during that span, and that of New Zealand's
Susan Devoy, who won eight British Opens between 1984 and '92,
and then retired. Few observers would have bet that Martin, who
used to be overweight and not very interested in training, would
dominate in a fashion that has earned her comparisons with
Devoy, if not yet with McKay. "Michelle learned what she had to
learn to become Number 1," says McKay, 55, who now coaches at
the Australian Sports Institute. "When Devoy retired, Michelle
did a lot more work. Her volleys set up the rest of her game.
She takes the ball early. She pressures her opponents with her
volley and drives, and she hits her drop shot very well."
Martin credits her coach and uncle, Lionel Robberds, a former
Australian rowing and squash star who's now a barrister in
Sydney, with improving her attitude and conditioning. "When
Uncle Lionel takes me out for a run, it's not a jog," says
Martin. "He's 57, still going strong. He runs distances with me
and then he gives me 40-meter sprints to do at angles on the
rugby field. At the end of it I'm pretty knackered. That's the
morning session. Then you have your recovery and the afternoon
session. When I'm home in Sydney, I also may play a men's league
match at night." She is quick to add that she plays one spot
ahead of her husband, Steve Lacy, who's also her agent, in the
top club league in Sydney.
Michelle, who is 5'7" and lists her weight as "none of your
business," has a sense of humor that serves her well. One moment
she can smile like a tour guide and the next carve out an
opponent's heart. "Who's hard for me to play?" she says. "That's
for me to know and for them to find out."
Will Martin try to equal McKay's feats? "You must be joking,"
she says. "Sixteen British Open wins? There are too many other
things in life. I wasn't Number 1 until I was 24. But I think I
can stay on top a few more years. Then I'd like to see half the
places I've already traveled to playing squash and start a
family with Steve."
On a stop in New York for a tournament in October, she said,
"New York is great. We had a pretzel and a hot dog in Times
Square. I took a look at that hot dog, but I certainly didn't
take a bite."
Eliot Berry has played in the British Open and is the author of
"Top Spin," a book about pro tennis.
COLOR PHOTO: GABE PALACIO The outspoken Martin would like to see squash players earn more and compete in the Olympics. [Michelle Martin]