Exclusive Interview by CASSIE THOMAS – Squash Mad Columnist
In 1999, 15 years ago Australian Squash Legend Michelle Martin retired from the game. I remember this day very clearly as I had just played her in the final of the US Open.
We were in the changing rooms and she said: “That’s it for me, I’m retiring.” I didn’t really know what to say and probably should have said more, but wished her all the best for the future. And that was that, no website tribute page or Facebook messages. A quiet end to an illustrious career.
Michelle was part of a golden era for Australian squash, with an astonishing strength in both men’s and women’s games.
Among her many achievements, she won six British Open titles, three World Open titles and two gold medals at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. She is now collecting Masters trophies and in 2013 she received the Medal of the Order of Australia.
I count myself lucky that I had the experience of playing Michelle many times on the Tour (even though I was runner-up most of the time!) and am delighted that she agreed to do 11 points for my column.
Michelle was manager of the Australian team who beat England in the final to win the 2010 Women’s World Team Championship, and she would love to be involved at that level again
1. It has been nearly 15 years since you retired. What do you think are the major differences between the game back then and now?
The game has definitely become more global from when I played. There is more depth in the women’s game because they have become a lot fitter and there are a lot of Egyptian girls playing from such a young age who are fantastic players.
2. You had a very successful career. What would you say was your highlight?
Sorry but I have two… Winning my first World Open in 1993 in Johannesburg was very memorable. There was a lot about that first major win that made it special, the years of training leading up to it, the effort that Lionel [Robberds] put in along with my Strength and Conditioning coach, practice partners, running partners and just the fact that I was now in a position to actually make it happen.
Winning a Gold Medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. For this event I also felt I had trained differently (this was the year I started training with my brother Rodney) and was in better shape physically than I had been for some time so mentally I was prepared. I never had such sore cheeks from smiling after the win. For squash to be included in an event like that really made you feel that the game had evolved and was being recognised as a truly global sport.
3. Who was the greatest influence on your career?
I had many influences really, each had a part to play. My Uncle Lionel Robberds was the major influence. He made me realise my potential and really gave me the belief that I was capable of the work necessary and to put that into play. He was the one who said he would take me to number one and he lived up to that statement. I have a very special relationship with Lionel.
After that came my brother Rodney, who, as a world champion himself, lifted me to another level when I became a little despondent and stale. To this day I never thought I could achieve the fitness levels I did, the mental toughness it gave me, or the consistency they both taught me to be the player I became.
But I will always be grateful to Geoff Hunt, Heather McKay and the Australian Institute of Sport for allowing me to have the opportunity to experience what professional squash was. Without them I would never have had the opportunity that arose which then propelled me onto the achievements I made.
4. Who would you say was your toughest opponent and what was your toughest match?
That would have to be Sarah Fitzgerald as we had many major finals which where always tough both mentally and physically, we both played hard fast paced squash and volleyed well. I think head to head I would be in front but I know that it was never easy walking on court playing Sarah. We grew up through juniors together and then started touring at the same time so there is a long history there. That in itself creates its own pressures and expectations.
The toughest match I think more so in terms of losing, was the World Open in Germany 1998 when I was 2-0 down against Sarah, came back to 2-2 and then went 8-2 up in the fifth to lose it. That is hard to be so close yet not able to close it out. If only for point a rally when I needed it.
But all credit to Sarah for being such a tough opponent. The next day we teamed to beat England in the World Teams event. I won every other tournament that year, got my ranking back to number one, won the British Open for the sixth time and won two Gold Medals at the Commonwealth Games.
Earlier in my career Susan Devoy was number one and although a very tough opponent I actually enjoyed my contests with her as I never had anything to lose, because she always won; bar once or twice.
5. What was your favourite tournament and also you visited many countries, do you have a favourite?
The British Open at Wembley was my favourite event. It felt special and we always had such a great time win or lose. The event really made the players feel like they were the best in the world, from the introductions to having a drink at the bar with the spectators, it was a special venue with a very special vibe.
As for my favourite country, they all offered different experiences, whether it be the food markets of Asia, the pyramids of Egypt or the friendly Canadians which made us feel very much at home.
I was very lucky to have a great club to base at in England (Colets) and stayed with Tammy Bennett and Simon Costain for nearly 10 years. That was my home away from home.
6. You were part of a golden era for Australian squash. Do you believe that Australia can ever get back to the top of the squash ladder?
It may take some time but we have some great enthusiastic coaches trying get Australian Squash back to the best we can be. It may never get back to what we had – that was special – but I believe we can still produce top players. We have some talented juniors coming through but we need them exposed earlier to the rest of the world which we are working towards now.
7. Having won the Australian Open seven times what are your thoughts of its absence on the calendar?
Any major tournament disappearing for a period of time is disappointing. It’s not just about not having it, it reflects on the sport. To me it feels like it plays down the importance these events had on everyone involved, so whether it be the Australian Open, the British Open or the World Open these major events need to be had every year to keep the significance alive.
8. Squash made its debut in the Commonwealth Games in 1998. You had a great tournament winning two gold medals. How different was it competing in a big multi-sport event?
This event was amazing to be a part of. The opening ceremony was special and a lot of fun just to be around so many other great sports people.
It was a very different feeling to being at one of the Tour’s regular events as it wasn’t just about squash or its top players. Having won a gold medal, though, and standing on the podium with your national anthem being played, feels very special.
9. Ghosting or court sprints?
Both. They both have their part to play. Why not throw in a few 300’s, and the versa climber as well.
10. What are you up to now, do you still play or coach?
Still playing and pretending I can play as well as ever. I just love playing still (at the Willoughby Squash Club and Warringah Recreation Centre in Sydney) as it beats going to the gym and I have a lot of fun with the people I play with. I am still very competitive but can take the loss a little easier these days as they are more frequent.
I am also coaching. I have been since I retired really as it fits in around my children and it keeps me involved. I did try another career about two years ago and that lasted two months as I realised that wearing high heels and skirts wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be!
I would love to be involved at a national level but unfortunately I haven’t been involved since I was manager-coach of the winning Australian ladies team. I have recently been in New York working with my brother Rodney at his RMS academy, which was great. Rodney is now working with the US squash players along with juniors and regular club players.
11. Finally just going off the subject of squash, if you could invite 3 people past or present for dinner, who would they be?
That’s too hard!
Pictures from Squash Mad archive