By Mike Corren
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
The Men’s World Open Championship began its life back in 1976 and was a well-overdue addition to the men’s world circuit. The reason being the “professional v. amateur” debate which was to rage even well into the ‘80s, at which time the game merged and went truly “open.” It is also worth noting that the first World Open was combined with the British Open, a kind of two-for-one pack!
It is fair to say that the World Open was very much secondary in terms of importance when compared to the British Open, that is until the glittering spectacle of Wembley and Hi-Tec sponsorship went belly up. Since then, whilst still having that tradition in its corner, reduced prize money and a constant changing of venues has worn away at the British Open’s number one status on tour.
Firmly entrenched at the top of the pile now is carrying the mantle of “World Champion.” Indeed, it does have an attractive ring to it, doesn’t it?
Of the current players, Amr Shabana and David Palmer have two titles a piece, good for fourth on the all-time list. Jansher Khan secured eight titles in his amazing career and may have had nine if it wasn’t for his “legal” problems which stopped him from competing in Malaysia in 1997.
Then we have Jahangir Khan with six titles, followed by the amazing Australian Geoff Hunt with four. It should also be noted that Hunt won the World Amateur title three times before the world went “open.” How many he may have won had there been a yearly event is anybody’s guess! So, in terms of history and competing against the very best, it has to be said that Hunt’s figure should be seven titles.
Then we have the “single winners.” They include Peter Nicol (1999), John Power (1998), Rodney Eyles (1997) and more recently, Thierry Lincou (2004).
There is another name on that list that is the focus of this story: Rodney Martin.
Rodney Martin, many would say (though not Martin), burst onto the squash scene at the wrong time. What kind of luck does one have to enter an era that contained the two most amazing players this game had ever seen in the two JK’s?
Martin though, alongside Chris Dittmar and Chris Robertson, thought otherwise and took up the challenge of bringing down the two “invincible” Khans.
This chase brought a rise in standard to the squash world that may never again be equaled.
Martin was runner-up to Jahangir on three occasions in the British Open, coming oh so close in 1989 when the final went to five games and Jahangir seemed to be on the ropes.
His record in the World Open, however, had been disappointing by his own standards. He lost to Dittmar in the semifinal in 1987 and again in 1988, this time in the quarters. The following year, in Malaysia, he was shocked by, of all people, his brother Brett in a five game thriller.
The following year was Martin’s low point when he lost to tour “veteran” Ross Norman. It was a fine performance by Norman and Martin must have been thinking that the World Open was his bogey event.
Then came Adelaide for the 1991 edition of the tournament. It was on “home soil” and a chance to shock the world!
Martin went into the event ranked five and was seeded to meet reigning champion and World No. 1 Jansher in the quarters. Jahangir was the man in form and was seeded second. Hometown and sentimental favorite was Dittmar at three, and Chris Robertson was four.
Dittmar, for example, was going after a World crown that he dearly wanted in his hometown and had targeted the event. In doing so, Dittmar had put in a huge work load to prepare for it.
Martin’s record against Dittmar was fair, with the edge going to the big left-hander in pure consistency. Also, Dittmar had defeated Martin in the National League that had been set up over that Australian season, not to mention beating Jansher 3-1 in a $20,000 winner-take-all challenge match held in Melbourne!
Jansher was…well…Jansher! Number one in the world and already the reigning three-time World Champion! Court coverage and fitness supreme! A daunting task to anybody, even the great Jahangir.
And speaking of the man, 1991 had been a classic year thus far for Jahangir.
After pulling out of the 1990 World Open with claims of fatigue and an impending marriage, he had been written off as burnt out and finished.
Yet, he lined up for the first tournament of the year, the Welsh Leekes Classic, overweight but apparently working hard, aiming once again for that British crown.
He defeated Martin in an ugly quarterfinal showdown with Martin accusing Jahangir of deliberate blocking tactics.
Jahangir went on to lose the next day to Chris Robertson and then in the final of the next event to Jansher (Spanish Open).
Martin again lost to Jahangir 3-1 in the final of the French Open, which marked Jahangir’s second tournament victory in a row and, just as significantly, his second win over Jansher in as many events (German Open).
Jahangir went on to beat Dittmar in Scotland and then topped it off with a 10th consecutive British Open, beating an erratic Martin in the semis and totally deflating Jansher 3-1 in the final.
There was a gap during the summer leading up to Adelaide when the majority of the Aussies went home, except Robertson, who stayed in Europe and lost to Jahangir in the final of the Italian Open.
So going into Adelaide, the form man had to be Jahangir. He was fit, hungry again and the World Open would be the perfect way to top it all off for the great man.
Dittmar was the dark horse, putting in a huge effort, not to mention an excellent record in World Opens past.
Jansher was the reigning champ and always roared back after being defeated.
Chris Robertson would be there as ever, the tactician, gnawing away at the heels like an annoying terrier! (Sorry Robbo!)
Oddly enough, Martin didn’t seem to come into the equation at the time, quite silly seeing as the man was a three-time runner-up in the British Open! Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise as the pressure was firmly at the feet of his rivals.
As the early rounds progressed, the form book was running to plan. Jansher disposed of Mark Cairns in straight games; Dittmar destroyed Brett Newton; Martin dropped the first to Jason Nicolle; and Jahangir also dropped a game to Paul Carter.
Play then moved to the glass court and Jansher continued his attack beating Sami Elopuro, again 3-0. Dittmar made mince meat out of young country man and future top-ten player Craig “Nugget” Rowland, Jahangir enjoyed a straight-games win over up-and-comer Pete Marshall, and Martin beat fellow Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) player Adam Schreiber, 3-0.
So as the quarters began, things were looking “steady.” Jahangir destroyed Ross Norman 3-0; Dittmar beat Anthony Hill to the bare minimum of points; and Robertson took out Brett Martin 3-1 in their usual highly entertaining clash of styles. Then came…the match to fire up the event!
Perhaps one thing that was on Jansher’s mind as he started this match was the worrying notion that if Martin was “on,” things could get a little out of hand, especially seeing this was Australia and that Martin had Geoff Hunt on hand to talk tactics with.
The opening rallies, though, looked custom made for Jansher. Long, searching, and with Jansher finishing with some lovely touches, especially with the forehand drop. Things looked gloomy for the Aussie.
But then Martin’s play became tighter and tighter, almost hypnotic, and Jansher was well and truly caught in the spell, like a fly in the spider’s web.
Loose balls were simply hit for clean winners in the style that only Martin could execute.
In the second game, Jansher’s head went down. Martin recognized the signs and knew, on this day, there was no escape. Amazing!
In 34 minutes Martin had destroyed the champion and, in doing so, set the event alight!
Could he keep it going though? He was next faced with Dittmar, who had ripped his three opponents apart, not dropping more than a handful of points along the way. Daunting stuff!
Martin, though, did have an edge. All of Dittmar’s opponents leading up to this semifinal clash had been utterly destroyed with no seeming resistance at all. This was awesome in one respect but in another, Dittmar hadn’t been tested, blooded—whereas Martin had had a tussle in the first round and also had to get his play to the highest level in order to displace Jansher.
As the semifinal started, that theory seemed a tad silly as Dittmar went to 10-0 with almost perfect squash! His mixture of length and short play was spot on, and all Martin could do was hold on and hope for something to fall off! And it did!
Dittmar’s mixture of length and short play all of a sudden became lopsided in favor of the short game, and giving an on-form Rod Martin the front court too early was the worst kind of trouble!
Dittmar took that game 15-5 but now had a dogfight on his hands! He again started the second like a train, but this time it was only for a 2-0 lead as Martin started peppering the nicks and returning the pressure superbly.
This match, in its own way, was some of the highest quality squash I have ever witnessed, the pressure of the rallies, the length and all out attack short…it had everything!
Martin took the next three games 15-13, 17-14, 15-13, but there was something that the close score line couldn’t tell. It was the feeling of the hold that Martin had over the match that even Dittmar commented on. “I was in every game but just felt that I was struggling to keep up. I feel like I’m in a daze right now, like I wish we could get up and start it all over again!”
Martin’s victory had set up a showdown with his nemesis, Jahangir, who had beaten Robertson 3-1 in a display of nicks and volleys that were truly devastating. In fact, it was true credit to all of Robbo’s fighting abilities that he was able to nab the second game, 15-14, such was the quality of Jahangir’s offensive.
I’m not sure how well Martin must have slept the night before the final with JK. His record against the great man in big finals was 0-3, and the nature of his matches with Khan as the years progressed must have also worried him. He showed increasing frustration with JK’s tactics and this had upset his game accordingly.
What we didn’t know was that Martin had worked during the summer with Ian Lynaugh (father of rugby international Michael) on his mental approach to the game, and especially on his approach to facing Jahangir, who had thwarted him in the British Open every year since 1987.
Jahangir, on the other hand, must have slept like a baby, snug in his PJ’s with his mug of warm milk next to him and his teddy close at hand, safe in the knowledge that he had defeated the Aussie time after time and that, after all, this would be just another chapter in his legend. That it was…meant to be!
Martin had both Geoff Hunt’s and Ken Hiscoe’s advice to draw on, and both had definite ideas about how to play the great man. Their theories were based upon breaking up Jahangir’s rhythm and not allowing him to play at his breakneck and highly effective pace that, when on song, no player could live with.
And as the match began, Jahangir’s familiar pattern was unleashed, with Hunt, now in his role as TV commentator, praising his old rival for his breathtaking power and pace.
But Martin was keeping up. There were a few nervous errors, but also some great winners. After all, he was five in the world at the time and one of the deadliest strikers of the ball—ever! A steamrolling was never on the cards.
Jahangir pinched the first game 17-14, and it looked to the untrained eye like smooth sailing ahead and a seventh World Open.
Oh, how very wrong!
Martin came out in the second and completely changed the pace of the match, a total chalk and cheese transformation.
Jahangir’s rhythm was broken and, alongside his points deficit, he was becoming increasingly annoyed with the decisions of one Chas Evans of New Zealand.
It seemed that Evans, unlike a lot of the English refs of the time, felt that yes, Jahangir did indeed have a habit of blocking and standing on the ball. And that perhaps his legend and reputation had blinded the judgment of certain refs.
This presented JK with a host of problems in this particular match. Firstly, the obvious, he was being given no lets and strokes against himself in “unfamiliar situations.” So he was losing points. Secondly, because he had been used to a certain way of being treated regarding decisions, he now felt victimized and, perhaps worst of all, Martin now felt justified and supported!
The second game went 15-9 to Martin and the third was a pure Martin master class at 15-4. Jahangir’s head was down. Could the unthinkable happen?
Being the great player, the legend he was, JK fought back hard in the fourth, but the momentum was with Martin and there was that same feeling of impending doom that Dittmar faced.
At 13-13 there was a disputed decision over a ball that JK thought hit the tin. On replay the ball looked to be a tad too close to the top edge. Even Hunt thought it may have been down, but it certainly wasn’t clear-cut.
And after being blooded on the circuit for five years against some of the roughest and toughest players of all time, there was no way Martin was going to be offering to play a let ball!
The last point was pure magic with Martin hitting a forehand drop in the front corner into the nick from an angle that, well, defied logic!
Jahangir looked stunned, Martin did a celebratory war dance and Geoff Hunt was lost for words. And the crowd of course, went crazy!
The win capped a series of performances for Martin that would go down in squash history. The top three players in the world, two of which are rated the greatest ever, the other certainly the toughest!
All three victories made against all unique challenges and circumstances.
Martin did indeed have other performance highs after that victory, until injury cruelly cut him down well before his time. But something that will never be taken away is what could be called the single greatest performance by a sportsman over successive days!
Since retiring, Martin has dedicated his time to coaching. This has included the next generation of Aussie champions via the AIS and, more recently, time spent in the US concentrating again on the youth. Could it be that one of his pupils will emulate their teacher in a future World Open?