World number one Willstrop bares his soul
Matt Ogborn @mattogborn
England boasts two of the top three men’s squash players in the world – not that you would know it from the appalling lack of coverage in the national press. The long-running rivalry between Nick Matthew and the reigning number one, James Willstrop, has kept squash fans around the world on the edge of their seats. However, the general public have largely been kept in the dark.
This week’s Canary Wharf Classic in London is the latest high-profile tournament in which the pair will both compete, and Willstrop is trying to change people’s perceptions about their cherished sport through the release of his raw, candid autobiography, Shot And A Ghost, edited by Daily Telegraph minor-sport tub-thumper Rod Gilmour.
There was a time once when squash names such as Jonah Barrington, Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Martine Le Moignan, Sarah Fitz-Gerald and Michelle Martin stirred up intense emotions in UK sports fans. We marvelled at their dexterity, grace and power, and then tried our hardest to repeat their shots at school or on club squash courts up and down the land.
English-born Irishman Barrington blazed a trail in the men’s game with his British Open successes in the late 60s and early 70s. His thunderous “boxing with rackets” approach saw him trump many players more talented than himself during a much-heralded career.
The Pakistani phenomena Jahangir and Jansher took up the baton from Barrington during a fascinating period that saw them fight it out at the back end and start of their respective careers. The women’s game was thriving too; the fierce rivalry between the Australian and British players giving each tournament an extra edge.
Sadly, squash has since slipped down the pecking order for many sports fans, which is a shame because it still represents a scintillating spectacle when the elite players are on their game.
Of the phalanx of sporting autobiographies and biographies released every year, only a few really delve deep enough into a person’s soul to leave us illuminated. Touted as “a year in the brutal world of professional squash”, Willstrop pours forth from his on a range of topics with startling honesty.
Along with the day-to-day grind of the circuit, Willstrop describes the roller-coaster journey under the tutelage of his father, Malcolm, that saw him crowned world junior champion, through the painful death of his mother and his recent crowning as world number one.
When I spoke with Willstrop during last month’s National Squash Championships in Manchester, I began to understand why squash fans had taken to this complex character so much. After navigating his way through an early round win, he said: “In squash nowadays, you can’t really take anything for granted. It’s pretty strong in depth now.
“I think the game has changed a lot over the years. We have changed the scoring system and the tin is lower at the front of the court. It has helped the game to get more attacking, explosive and faster, with the players getting faster and stronger because the training techniques have improved. The standard of play is probably stronger now, but that’s not to say that the players of yesteryear would not have been as strong, because they would. Nevertheless, people know more, train smarter and manage to look after their bodies. Rackets have changed, too, and the two eras aren’t really comparable in many respects.”
Willstrop’s rivalry with his fellow Yorkshireman at the top of the men’s rankings has been a one-sided affair of late – Matthew’s Manchester final victory later in the week continuing his domination. Their off-court relationship has been tetchy at times; however, Willstrop is quick to praise the world number three’s never-say-die spirit.
He says: “Taking the number-one position meant more interest in me; then, there is the rivalry between Nick and myself, which is good for the game. It creates interest when you have a big rivalry like that, especially when you live so close. We are proud Yorkshiremen and we are doing very well at the moment.”
He says: “We all have different styles, and without wanting to sound stereotypical as every player is different, the number-one French player at the moment [Gaultier] is very French, really! I don’t know how better to explain it. He gives off his emotions, likes to entertain and is flamboyant, while the Egyptians are renowned for their racket skills.
“English guys are more stoic and reserved, but still tough and hard. They are the general squash stereotypes. The Egyptian rivalry is always alluded to, as it is so strong, and it has been a great thing; but, in the past few months, England and France have held the top three positions. Egypt had the limelight before that for a few years, but we hold the position over them now.”
In Shot And A Ghost, Willstrop’s views on the fear in the pit of your stomach before a match, sledging and the “cardinal sin” of thinking about the next round before you have closed out a match will resonate with players of all abilities. There are similarities between Willstrop and one of sport’s most intriguing, yet frustrating, figures: snooker’s Ronnie O’Sullivan. The flashes of genius are interspersed with the constant “Will they? Won’t they?” retirement jousting.
When quizzed on the value of sports psychology to help deal with the stresses and strains, Willstrop, who owns up to an obsessive-compulsive attitude towards avoiding injury in the book, reveals: “I have certainly been interested in sports psychology, but I know people who don’t use it at all. It is down to your preferences and what suits you. I think it is silly not to at least try it once. Of course, in any sport, the mental side of it is huge. They can put things into perspective and simplify things when you make it complicated. It is important. There is a lot of mileage in it.”
How does having your father coach you from an early age help you? Willstrop claims in his book that having the controversial and passionate “Malc” on your side is “to gain two points a game” and likens him to Brian Clough. He also goes by the mantra “It’s amazing just what can be achieved when nobody cares who takes the glory”, which is written on a wall at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, and values completely the team around him throughout the year.
A hugely cultured person in his off-court life with partner and former world women’s number one, Vanessa Atkinson, Willstrop is eager to point out that there is a certain artistry to squash:
“It’s an extremely subtle game and I am constantly working on small differences to improve. Sport in many respects is an art. The way Roger Federer plays tennis looks artistic with injections of movement, and that is a fascinating thing. When you are in the top 10 in the world, you are thinking about the very small things that can win you rallies. It encapsulates everything like fitness, strength, skill and speed.”
What, then, can the crowd expect this week in London, and how does Willstrop view the relationship between the players and the spectators outside of the claustrophobic glass arena?
“There is not a lot of space; it is enclosed and extremely gladiatorial. It is an intense atmosphere in there. It is a bit of a balance with the crowd. You have to maintain that sort of bubble when you are concentrating. You really don’t see a lot of what is going on, which is a bit of a shame as they can generate a fantastic atmosphere. All you are concerned about is what is happening on the court – like a training session, really, with nobody watching. Keep the crowd at arm’s length, so they are not interrupting your thought process, but use them to encourage you as well.
“We had live TV the other week at Queen’s Club and the internet product is good, which it wasn’t before. You couldn’t see the ball before and now it is looking better than ever. Hopefully we can keep promoting the sport and getting it more recognition, especially in this country where we have so many good players.”
With squash’s continuing omission from the Olympics baffling to many in the sporting world, Willstrop and the England team’s enthusiastic and proud approach to the Commonwealth Games, World Team and European Team events is refreshing in this day and age.
For that alone, Willstrop should be commended. What does he want readers of his autobiography to ultimately take from his brutally candid diary, then?
“It’s quite strange, because I am not the sort of person who would go around talking about private stuff,” he says. “However, as soon as I started writing this, I just had to do it. It was a great diversion and it has helped me to play, as I have got rid of this stuff off the squash court so I can focus more on it.
“It is a sports book, but I just hope that it will be readable for lots of different people who admire anyone who is working hard to be the best at anything. Hopefully there are bits in there that really do get to people and, when you are writing a book or song, you just hope you can relate to somebody, somewhere.”
If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt’s in-depth look at rugby league in “Sudden Impact”