The opening game in the Punj Lloyd
Masters lasted 58 minutes and the physical exertions required to win it
took their toll on Gaultier. Willstrop won the second game 11-8 and the
third 11-4, and he was 6-1 up in the fourth when Gaultier conceded the
match because of cramp after 99 minutes of high-quality, brutal squash.
Willstrop said: “That first game was
simply amazing. We both just kept going and going. You just play flat
out and every point counts. It was an awesome game and one of the
longest in the modern game.
“It had everything, physical endurance
and mental toughness. What we were both doing on there was pretty
tough. It wasn’t flashy, in-the-nick squash, but it was still a classic
game in terms of squash quality.
“At the end of the game I felt I had done
what I had planned to do and my squash was working well. I had worked
hard and was pretty disappointed not to have taken the game because I
was doing the right things.
“I felt good, I felt strong and as soon
as we walked back on court for the second game I felt him drop a bit. I
thought ‘There’s no reason why I can’t win this’.
“You can talk yourself out of losing a
match and I kept reminding myself that I had to keep everything tight.
The next little challenge was the second game. I won that and there was
no advantage to him any more. We were level. And again I felt a slight
drop in his performance in the third game. The rallies were strong and
hard and the third game was the same. I built up a good lead and could
see he was on a downward curve. That’s not to say Greg didn’t want to
win it either, but I was feeling strong and knew how badly I wanted to
win it, and that’s what carried me through.
“At the end of the third game, Greg took
a three-minute injury break. After 90 minutes of tough rallies on court,
perhaps things had just caught up with him.
“I just got on with everything I had to
do. When Greg conceded with the score 6-1 in the fourth I just collapsed
on to the court floor. I don’t know why I did that, but I it was the
culmination of so much hard work during the year, and knowing what it
had taken to get there.
“That moment came after a lot of years of
doubt and it was about so much more than just winning a squash game. It
was pure emotion and I was so pleased to have my family and closest
friends with me in Delhi to share it.
“We hadn’t planned it but I was so
pleased everyone was able to get to Delhi: Vanessa, my girlfriend, was
MC at the tournament, and my Dad, Malcolm, my brother David (Campion),
my manager Mick Todd, and David Pearson (former national coach) were all
able to get to get across to the other side of the world and to have
them all there was so special.
“It was a dream scenario and it was a
wonderful feeling to have them all there to be part of it and share it
Victory propelled Willstrop to world No.1
for the first time in his career, making him the last of the current top
six to sit astride the rankings.
Ending the year on such a massive high
was an enormous contrast to how he began it, admitting he was stale,
tired and not enjoying his squash after losing in the quarter-finals of
the National Championships to Jonathan Kemp.
He told a stunned Manchester audience:
“I’m just not enjoying playing at the moment. I just feel exhausted.
Every time I’m on court, it feels like it’s a toil. I’m actually glad
I’m not playing tomorrow.
“I played a lot of squash in the autumn
and maybe should have done something to reduce the load and manage my
schedule a bit better.”
Reflecting on that today (two days before
Christmas), Willstrop added: “I was going through a really tired spell.
The end of 2010 was really hard for me. I was knackered. I could not
find the energy to enjoy what I was doing. It feels good to have turned
I asked him if he had learned any lessons
from that experience and he replied: “It’s not that simple. Sometimes
it’s not that easy to affect how things are going. The schedule at that
time was particularly strenuous and I had lots of hard, tough matches.
“This year the physical side of things
has not seemed so hard. It helps if you are playing better squash. If
you can win 3-0 you spend less time on court. You preserve your body and
your energy levels.”
I asked him to dig a little deeper for an
explanation. He answered: “That may sound a simple solution but yes,
there is a much deeper answer. It comes from an 18-year-old working
tirelessly to advance, constantly learning and analysing everything to
get on in the game. Finally it all came together at one period of time.
There is no magic wand that can help you, but what I have learnt from
the last few weeks is the importance of finishing matches as quickly as
possible to preserve your energy. That’s the main thing, so that when
you enter the final phase of a tournament you still have plenty of
energy left in the tank.
“Having said that, I know that next year
could be very different. You have to live with the schedule. I have
talked about it a lot with the people around me and they have helped me
to try to stay as fresh as possible, especially when you come home from
a tournament overseas.”
Willstrop allowed himself the luxury of a
brief rest after returning home from Delhi but I caught up with him as
he headed to Pontefract for a training session as the rest of the
country began their Christmas holidays. He said: I’m not one for
wallowing around on the sofa and watching TV, especially during a time
of the year when there is a tendency to eat too much.”
He and his girlfriend Vanessa are both
vegetarians and I asked him what was on their festive menu. “I can
confirm that Vanessa and I make the most delicious, most beautiful nut
roast. A lot of people might turn their noses up at that but it is at
least ten times better than boring turkey.”
When the holidays are over, he will be
heading for London to compete in the PSA World Series Finals before
planning trips to the States for the Tournament of Champions and the
North American Open in Richmond.
At the start of 2010, Willstrop had
achieved the rare satisfaction of overcoming Egyptian trio Amr Shabana,
Karim Darwish and Ramy Ashour to win the TOC at Grand Central Station in
New York. But in 2011, he fell in the semi-finals, a straight-games
defeat to Ashour.
It was a significant sign that all was
not well in Willstrop’s world.
His New York disappointment and
Manchester meltdown followed a year of significant consistency but one
that accumulated an ever-increasing workload. His TOC triumph in early
2010 was his sole tournament win, but he finished as runner-up in seven
other tournaments, and reached the semi-finals of four others.
Clearly, fatigue was eating away at his
fitness and his normally unflappable dedication to his craft. He was
struggling to cope, physically and mentally. The hours of training, the
physical toll of continuous tournament play, plus all the travelling,
was wearing him down.
In many of those matches he had seen his
England team-mate and Yorkshire neighbour Nick Matthew demonstrate the
consistency required to win big points, dominate major tournaments, and
rise to number one in the world.
had finished runner-up to Matthew in the final of the World Open and the
Commonwealth Games and had failed to halt a long, losing run in a
domestic rivalry that was being played out on the global stage.
Now, here we are talking about a man who
is literally at one with the world. He may not have beaten Matthew on
his way to the top of the rankings in the past three tournaments, but he
has finally overtaken him at the top of the PSA tree.
While Matthew recovers from an adductor
injury, and targets a return to the court at Queen’s Club for the World
Series finals, Willstrop can enjoy Christmas and feed on his new-found
confidence as he makes plans for 2012.
He knows that when Matthew and Ashour are
fully fit again, he will need his new tactical and physical strategies
to be as effective as possible.
FACT FILE: FABULOUS FIFTEEN
HONG KONG OPEN
Jonathan Kemp (England) 13-11, 11-6, 11-5
Olli Tuominen (Finland) 11-3, 11-8, 11-6
Peter Barker (England) 11-3, 11-8, 3-0
Gregory Gaultier (France) 11-9, 11-9,
Karim Darwish (Egypt) 11-5, 11-9, 11-4
Chris Simpson (England) 11-0, 11-8, 11-9
Alister Walker (Botswana) 11-7, 11-5,
Peter Barker (England) 11-9, 11-7, 11-7
Gregory Gaultier (France) 11-9, 11-6,
Karim Darwish (Egypt) 11-7, 10-12, 11-4,
PUNJ LLOYD PSA MASTERS, DELHI
Nic Mueller (Switzerland) 8-11, 11-7,
Alister Walker (Botswana) 12-10, 11-4,
Daryl Selby (England) 11-7, 11-7, 9-11,
Peter Barker (England) 11-4, 11-3, 11-4
Gregory Gaultier (France) 19-21, 11-8,
11-4, 6-1 retd.
FACT FILE: FAMILIAR FACES
James Willstrop overcame Gregory Gaultier
in all three tournaments. He beat him in straight games in both the Hong
Kong and Kuwait semi-finals before that epic confrontation in Delhi.
Willstrop also met Peter Barker in all
three events, twice at the quarter-final stage and once in the semis.
The quickest of the three lasted just 27 minutes as Barker retired
through injury in Hong Kong.
Willstrop beat Alister Walker twice (in
Hong Kong and Kuwait) and also recorded an opening game 11-0 win over
Chris Simpson; quite a contrast to that 58-minute first game against
Gaultier in the Delhi final!
FACT FILE: FRIENDS AND FAMILY
After winning in Delhi, Willstrop was
quick to thank his support team. He said: “This is such a special day
for me. And it’s extra special to have achieved this here so many close
people in attendance, including my girlfriend Vanessa (Atkinson, who was
the tournament MC), my Dad, Malcolm, who has given me an incredible
amount of attention and support since the start of my career; my brother
David (Campion), the endless sessions on court and the work we have put
in together; and my manager Mick (Todd). It’s the most special feeling,
because they have given me so much. It wouldn’t mean half as much if I
hadn’t had these people behind me.
FACT FILE: FOILING FRANCE
Willstrop was very quick to praise his
opponent, Gregory Gaultier, adding: “To have had all those people here
has made such a big difference. Greg talked about not having his team
with him here in Delhi, but I’ve been lucky as we have planned this. And
I would like to thank Greg for the spirit in which it was played.”
FACT FILE: FEELING FANTASTIC
AFTER WINNING IN HONG KONG:
“The first thing that came into my mind
when I won was not about winning a squash match. It was about the
ambition we carry and the will to be the best at what we do, in these
great venues all around the world.
“But most of all it’s about the people
around me who work for me and with me, and help me to enjoy successes
like this. It’s a great life we lead, but this moment is for them. “
AFTER WINNING IN KUWAIT:
“I am incredibly pleased to have won, but
it was a very hard fight against Karim.
“It is difficult to back up performances
in two tournaments and the odds are against you. In the past I have
always worked hard in training on my weaknesses, but now I am
concentrating more on my strengths.
“I have tried to adapt my squash to my
physical condition. Can I win three in a row? Well, I guess it can be
done. If I can produce squash like that, I can win the next one.”
AFTER WINNING IN DELHI:
“Winning the PSA Masters is a massive big
deal. It’s a very special day. Amazing. I am feeling good physically and
winning breeds extra confidence. I am in strong physical shape and can
last the tournaments now. It has all come together and this is very
special for me.”