Exclusive by RJ Mitchell
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THE argument over who is the greatest player of all time in the men’s game is a debate which perennially rages in every squash club around the globe.
Depending on your vintage you may advance the case for seventies icons Jonah Barrington or Geoff Hunt, while if your heyday came in the 80s or 90s then it is impossible to look beyond either Jahangir or Jansher Khan.
Fast Forward to the new millennium and ‘The Artist’ Ramy Ashour will undoubtedly have his advocates while some may feel moved to make a case for three-time World Champion Nick Matthew and the recent reclaiming of the World No.1 position for a record fourth time by Mohamed ElShorbagy is also worthy of consideration.
Yet surely the defining factor should be the number of major titles accumulated on a court CV and using this metric Australian squash immortal Geoff Hunt, the game’s inaugural world champion back in 1979, who claimed a combined total of 12 British (8) and World (4) titles and was the only man to beat Jahangir Khan in a British Open final comes in a close third.
Yet in referencing the number of British and World titles notched on the bedpost it is the two Khans, whose playing styles and personalities were almost diametrically poles apart, who are left to battle it out for the title of the squash’s GOAT.
While the languid grace and guile of Jansher garnered eight world titles and six British Opens, it is the man he succeeded as the game’s dominant force, Jahangir, who claimed an amazing 10 British Opens and six World titles, who comes out on top with 16 blue ribbon titles accumulated.
But perhaps the best person to pass judgement on who should be regarded as our game’s emeritus performer is the only player to have beaten both Khans in one competition.
It was in 1991 that Australia’s Rodney Martin despatched Jansher in the quarter finals of the World Championships, dusted himself down to take out fellow Aussie great Chris Dittmar in the semi-final and then took sweet revenge on Jahnagir for three British Open final losses, to claim the defining title of a brilliant career cruelly cut short by a hip injury.
In an exclusive interview Martin, the man who has helped guide ElShorbagy back to the summit of the PSA World Rankings in 2020, gave his verdict on the legend he believes should be regarded as ‘simply the best’.
“When you look at Jahangir and Jansher as players, and certainly when you competed against them, it was abundantly clear they were completely different types of player,” said Martin.
“But while I would say that Jansher had the finer touch and was perhaps the better more economical and graceful mover, for me Jahangir Khan has to go down as the greatest squash player of all time. In my eyes he is the GOAT.
Martin in action against Khan
“When I played Jahangir for the first time, I could not believe how hard he seemed to hit every single shot. He just had such relentless power, he hit the ball bloody hard, his movement was explosive, and he gave you absolutely nothing. He also probably had the single biggest presence on a squash court I came up against.
“He just played at a pace and tempo that nobody else did and every ball he hit had a crack on it like sniper’s rifle but very few people have affected their sport and transcended it like Jahangir Khan did with squash.
“Yes, Jansher was a great champion and I must also make mention of my fellow Australian, the great Geoff Hunt in here, but can anyone dispute that what Jahangir achieved with his unbeaten run of 555 matches between 1981 and 1986 and by winning the most British and World titles, with 16 in the bag, took him beyond the parameters of our sport and so put Jahangir way out on his own? For me no way, Jahangir is the man.”
While Martin reveres his British Open bete noir above all others it is clear that the enigmatic personality and panther like movement of Jansher is something that Martin, who recorded more wins against him (eight in 17 matches courtesy of SquashInfo) than anyone else except Jahangir, has great respect.
Yet at the same time the straight-talking Aussie admits he did not possess the fear factor of his elder compatriot: “When I played Jansher I did feel there wasn’t the same intensity and also that I could definitely make him uncomfortable. The best way to do that was to hit winners and to use deception and disguise to send him the wrong way and keep him off balance.
The 54-year-old continued: “For me there just wasn’t the fear there against Jansher that I felt when I stepped on court with Jahangir. I had beaten Jansher at the World Juniors in Canada when we met in the 3rd/4th play-off and I took him out 3-0 and after that I always had the belief that when I was on my game I could beat him.
“Yet I must also say that Jansher had plenty he could hurt you with and you knew that you had to produce your best every time against him. But it is one of the things I’m truly proud about from my playing career that I beat Jansher Khan more than anyone else and I guess that tells you how highly I rate him.”
Returning to Jahangir, Martin was keen to provide a fascinating insight into his encounters with the great Khan: “The bottom line is that Jahangir lost so few matches, he put together the longest unbeaten run in the history of squash, at 555 matches, before Ross Norman finally ambushed him at the World Open final in ’86, in Toulouse.
Martin added: “He was also the busiest No.1 and the last of these factors is something that isn’t considered much. Jahangir played everything. World Tour level tournaments, minor tournaments where you would never expect him to turn up and exhibitions and you could count the number of times he lost virtually on a single hand.
“In fact, during my first year at the Australian Institute of Sport under the great Geoff Hunt, I actually played Jahangir at a local ‘Dubbo’ tournament and you just would never have expected him to show up and play that level of tournament against a rookie pro just outside the juniors but his hunger for the game was relentless.
“That takes awesome levels of concentration day after day and a mentality that is unbelievably strong because every time Jahangir stepped on court there was pressure on him as being No.1. But you know what? I think he loved it. I think it fuelled him and fired him up and in that he was maybe different from Jansher and perhaps that’s just what made him different to everyone.
“But it is like everything, if you get enough looks at someone’s cards and you have the belief in your own game that you can get the result you’re after, you will have your day eventually. Although I lost to him heavily early on, eventually I came back from two games down at the New South Wales Open and beat Jahangir in the fifth set and what that did was give me an unbelievable self-belief.”
When it comes to the defining moments of Martin’s exceptional career it is clear that 29 years later that glory run to the World title of 1991 on his home Australian boards in Adelaide has given the squash great memories he rightly treasures above all else.
Martin recalled: “I learned so much from playing both Jahangir and Jansher. How important precision was in your hitting and how accuracy was absolutely vital and I developed a level of clinical accuracy that was borne of a need caused by the quality of the opposition I played against and I include Chris Dittmar in there.
“But to win the 1991 World Open I had to beat Jansher in the quarter-finals, Chris (Dittmar) in the semis and Jahangir in the final and to do that and become the only person to beat them both in the same tournament, with Chris in his own backyard, a real tough filling in that sandwich, is something that still gives me so much pride and satisfaction.
“Obviously my career was cut short by a hip injury just three years later and if I hadn’t won the world open, particularly with losing to Jahnagir in three consecutive British Open finals, well it would have felt like something had been missing from my career.
“But instead I earned my world title the hard way by beating both Khans en route and that matters to me a helluva lot.”
But while Martin got the better of Jahangir in the ’91 World final, the British Open, spanning three finals between 1988 and 1990 was to provide only heartache as the Aussie legend recalled: “Obviously I lost to Jahangir in three British Open finals on the bounce and that still hurts but if you are going to go down in three British finals on the bounce then to do so against the greatest player of all time is a pain I can live with!
“Apart from the finals we also had an epic semi-final one year, in which I think, if memory serves, I was 2-0 and 6-4 up and Jahangir turned that one round and that if I’m being honest is the one that really hurts.”
Yet Martin offers a plea in mitigation for his three losses against his immortal squash nemesis: “The one thing I would say which did impact my chances of winning these finals was that they were all played with what we called a “telly” ball, one designed for television to make the ball as luminous and easy to track as possible and that made a world of difference, believe me.
“You only got 20 minutes before the game to have a hit with it and get used to it and after playing all the other rounds with a traditional ball it was just a completely different game with the telly ball. Plus, my game was to take the ball in short with touch and feel and a bit of disguise and that telly ball was just so lively and bouncy it made it bloody tough to do so.
“But you know I look back at my playing career and the only real regret I have is the hip injury finishing me off early and that the technology wasn’t there to do something about it earlier.”