Squash: Martin's reign a family affair with uncle as queen-maker: British women face a battle to dislodge the confident Australian champion at this week's World Open

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the biggest obstacles to an Englishwoman winning the World Open title here during the next six days is a short, quiet, inconspicuous man, seen on circuit only twice a year and whose most notable outward characteristic is a half-smile as though he had found the secret of Eastern promise.

Many people might overlook Lionel Robberds. He is, though, the person behind the dramatic transformation of Australia's Michelle Martin, not so long ago a slightly plump and rather ponderous competitor, now the most successful by a distance, and favourite to take the World Open for the second year in a row. 'I owe it to him,' she says.

Had Martin continued as she was, the chances are that Suzanne Horner, the British national champion from Yorkshire, would now be the highest-ranked player, while Cassie Jackman, the former world junior champion from Norfolk, might perhaps have broken through for a major title, and each of them would have the world title clearly in their sights.

Both have a chance, but can probably only succeed if Martin has an unusually bad day. 'With Lionel around, I feel I can cope even if this happens,' she says. 'I didn't ask him to help me. He approached me. He's changed everything for me. I wouldn't be where I am without him.'

Robberds is her uncle. He is thus a member of one of the most extraordinary of all sporting families, the father of a former world circuit player, Mark Robberds, and uncle also to the world No 2, Brett Martin, and to the 1991 world champion, Rodney Martin. No brother and sister had won world titles until Michelle's triumph in South Africa last year elevated the Martins' achievements to a similar status to that of the legendary Khans of Pakistan.

Perversely, it took family disaster to make the world more aware of it. Rodney's wife, Danielle Drady, the former world No 2, left him to live with his manager, Phil Harte, prompting a loud derogation and dismissal from Michelle, whom Harte also managed.

Since then, the Martins, previously a rather enigmatic and individualistic bunch, have been visibly lending moral support.

Michelle knows the importance of support. Robberds's presence at World and British Opens has helped keep her ship on course, but the trim sails and sleek shell have been created over many months by the training regimen the Sydney barrister drew up.

This year, she has lost only once. Since becoming top woman two years ago, she has had just three losses, all to her compatriot, Liz Irving, seeded second this week but who recently lost the world No 2 ranking to Horner. Horner took Martin to five games in Singapore but could not capitalise on a two-game lead, and Jackman, recovering from a mini- crisis in her career, took Martin to 10-8 in the fourth in Hong Kong.

Another Australian, Sarah Fitz- Gerald, could be as serious a threat as any. But expect the champion to move up to take the trophy again and if so, expect her too to embrace uncle and mentor before he slips mysteriously to the sidelines as if trying to hide the magic that made the moment.

(Photograph omitted)