James Willstrop : from 2004 to 2022
INTERVIEW BY ALAN THATCHER
Not so long ago, squash lovers would have been treated to a match between superstars James Willstrop and Miguel Rodriguez at the business end of a tournament.
This year they meet in the first round of the GillenMarkets Canary Wharf Classic, providing the standout contest on the opening day of competition on Sunday March 13th.
Willstrop, a four-time champion at Canary Wharf, reached the world No.1 position 10 years ago by playing with a deft quality and precision that his rivals struggled to deal with.
Rodriguez was the opposite, an all-action athlete who wowed crowds the world over with his incredible dives around the court. Winning the British Open in 2018 was the highlight of the Colombian Cannonball’s career. In the same year, Willstrop won the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games by beating Paul Coll in the final in Australia.
These two experienced campaigners (Willstrop is 38 and Rodriguez 36) are relishing the prospect of competing in front of a full-house crowd at Canary Wharf’s stunning East Wintergarden venue.
Coll, meanwhile, will be enjoying a rest day. He returns to London as reigning champion, the top seed … and newly elevated world No.1.
Willstrop is delighted to see the New Zealander reach the top spot, appreciating the sacrifices and determination that have propelled him to the summit of the sport.
Coll earned his nickname as “Superman” during an incredible first-round battle against Willstrop at Canary Wharf in 2016.
During one famous rally, Coll dived across the court three times to win the point as a clearly distracted Willstrop clipped the tin with an easy drop shot.
The videos went viral and a new squash star was born.
Willstrop recalls that evening with enormous clarity :
“I remember it well. What people won’t know is that behind the scenes, other players were congratulating him after the match for all the dives and his incredible movement.
“Players came up to him and said ‘You don’t know how big that rally was’ but Paul was quite down on himself. Everyone else was excited by the dives but he said ‘Yes, but that won’t win me many matches’.
“People watched it over and over again and fans still come up to me today and talk about it. But Paul knew that was not the way he wanted to be identified. He is now diving less and the end result is not the diving and the entertainment but the winning of tournaments.
“Season by season you could see things that were leading him in the right direction and I am so pleased for him to reach number one. He is a great champion and a good person.
“It’s great to see people like him coming through. He plays hard, aggressive squash but with a level of honesty and respect. He’s an honest guy and he has a certain way about him. He carries it well.
“I’m happy for him and he is a great champion for the sport and for New Zealand.
“His commitment and dedication are phenomenal. He has taken it to new levels and reminds me of Jonah Barrington in his prime.
“In a game like squash, none of the top players has ever scrimped on their fitness work but he has eclipsed them all with his obsession and intensity. From that workload he has emerged to be the world No.1 and British Open champion.”
Looking ahead to his match against Rodriguez, Willstrop added:
“I can see the headlines now – ‘Two Golden Oldies’. In this day and age I think athletes are learning how to look after their bodies better than ever and you saw that with Rafa Nadal at the Australian Open tennis.
“Clearly a lot of athletes are lasting longer. Personally, I don’t take anything for granted and every day that I can step on court and compete is a bonus. I love playing and have found a new love for the sport that I didn’t always have.
“I am getting used to being in the reserves in the big tournament draws and when that happens on a regular basis your whole perspective changes.
“I never know if it will be my last Canary Wharf and I want to treasure every moment. These are wonderful times for me as a player and these are moments I love and treasure the most.
“Playing Miguel I know it’s best of three and that format can run away from you and you can quickly lose the thread. Last year I played well in the first round but couldn’t repeat that level in the second.”
The prize for the winner between Willstrop and Rodriguez is a second round tie against seventh seed Fares Dessouky.
Much of the attention at Canary Wharf will be focused on Dessouky’s Egyptian compatriot Mostafa Asal, who reached the world top four in February after some outstanding performances last year that were often accompanied by controversy.
Asal returns to Canary Wharf as No.2 seed after serving a suspension and Willstrop was willing to provide some candid opinions from his position as a vastly experienced professional who served as PSA president for six years.
“Mostafa is a fabulous player but some of his behaviour is not my style; not my cup of tea.
“I haven’t read much of the stuff on social media and the websites but I have heard plenty of people offering their opinions.
“Some think that the colourful stuff is what squash needs but my view is that Mostafa is an incredible player and he should let his squash do the talking.”
Later this year the Commonwealth Games will provide a huge focal point for squash and Willstrop is looking forward to competing in Birmingham, having won gold by beating Paul Coll in the men’s singles final in Gold Coast four years ago.
“A lot of players are jostling for a place and I have made it thus far and will try to keep going. It’s a big thing for our sport and all the top English players will want to be part of something special in our own backyard.
“Birmingham is sure to provide an amazing atmosphere and amazing experiences for all concerned.
“All the Games I have been part of have been well attended but Glasgow stood out in 2014 for the crowds, the noise and the atmosphere from day one.
“I remember vividly walking in around mid-day during the first round and there must have been between 1,500 and 2,000 spectators in the venue watching Scotland’s Alan Clyne. He was winning comfortably but all I could hear was this massive applause. The crowd were going crazy with every point he won.”
I will confidently predict that Willstrop and Rodriguez are certain to enjoy the same kind of support from squash’s most knowledgeable and passionate crowd when they step on court for their first-round battle at Canary Wharf.
The man who won our very first final back in 2004 hopes it will be another Canary Wharf classic.