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."