The former world No1 talks about recovering from serious injury, getting back to the top… and his theatrical ambitions
Note: since this interview in May 2015, rankings/ages have changed.
Another long, brutal season of squash may be coming to an end but for James Willstrop, the work has only just begun. After four months on the sidelines from September last year to January, the Yorkshireman’s shortened season means there is a freshness to his outlook that his rivals won’t be enjoying.
Currently ranked at 18, Willstrop has experienced a mixture of fortunes since his return from injury, reaching the quarter-finals of the Swedish Open, Canary Wharf Classic and the El Gouna International Open in Egypt. In May, he exited the British Open in the 1st round at the hands of the sheer power of Mohamed Elshorbagy, but said after the match that he was “thrilled” just to be back playing at the top level. The relief of being able to compete again radiates from the 31-year-old.
“I’m getting back into it, I want to train and I’ve got the appetite to work hard, so I’ll keep going,” says Willstrop in between a double practice session at his training base in Pontefract. “I’ve got a holiday in June as it’s the only time I can go away, but I’ve had four months off for God’s sake! There’s no need for me to have masses of time off now.
“The mind is completely fresh compared to what it would normally be. You know when you’re mentally and physically broken, and I know I’m not. There’s a mental freshness which comes from four months off. I should be absolutely ready now, and I am.”
Willstrop knows that he is entering the most important part of his recovery from an injury that nearly derailed his career on the court. “The hip’s doing all right. It’s less the hip that’s been more of a problem but more of the rest of the body that sometimes flares up, but we’re just about getting there now, just in time for the end of the season. I’ll keep off the court a little more maybe and just concentrate on keeping the body really strong.
“I don’t want to lose any more ground. So I’ll keep working, and I’m going as strong as I can until mid-August – we’ve got our first tournament then, and then it really starts properly at the beginning of September.”
After playing through injections during his run to a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Willstrop won the China Open in September before going under the knife. By his own admission the ever-thoughtful Willstrop is conscious that his body, having been through so much, now needs to be looked after more than ever. When asked if the same hunger and desire to be the best is still there, he is typically philosophical.
“It is, but it’s a little bit different. It’s not quite like it was when I was 22. I’ve had a big hit of perspective [with the injury]. I was told I wasn’t going to play again last summer, and when you’re told that you really just treasure being on the squash court much more than ever. It’s a really great place to be.”
The former world No1 is as positive as you’d expect from an athlete whose career, and first love, is back on track after being threatened so severely. “It’s so much better, so much healthier just to not be thinking every training session is pressure, and I’ve got to hit this target and keep pushing and pushing and pushing. Now it’s about keeping yourself healthy and enjoying this brilliant life you have. I absolutely love what I’m doing and don’t want to lose that enjoyment that I naturally feel for the game.”
Willstrop has certainly not been kicking his heels during his period away from the court. Following the success of his candid 2012 book a Shot and a Ghost, the first squash book to be nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, he has continued to spend much of his time writing. A regular online column for The Guardian has developed from his candid blog posts and he writes a squash column for the Yorkshire Evening Post.
Though so often quietly spoken, the writings of the man known as the ‘Marksman’ pack a punch as strong as any of his famously accurate strokes. He has written passionately in support of pay and recognition equality in women’s sport and as you might expect from a world-class athlete, has a flair for the dramatic.
“I’d like to do some screenwriting, or maybe playwriting. I love theatre, so I suppose the ideal job would be to pack my bags and go and write some theatre scripts. The idea of writing fiction appeals as well. I’ve written loads of articles over the year about sport, and squash, and I’ve written a non-fiction book. But I do like the dramatic element. I like reading stories and I’d love to get into that.
“Being a squash player has helped me. I’ve been lucky to earn a decent amount and I’ve been to the top of the world. The game has taken me to New York for instance – when I’m there now I spend more time at the bloody theatre then I do on the court.”
For Willstrop, writing and squash are mutually beneficial. “Doing something so specific as hitting a little black ball can become very overbearing when you’ve done it for so many years. That other side of you, the theatre, writing articles and writing books, is absolutely crucial to what I’m doing on the squash court.”
Willstrop has a young son, Logan, with his girlfriend, the now-retired former WSA No1 Vanessa Atkinson. The writing, though enjoyable and therapeutic for him, is way of looking toward a future away from the court. At 31, he has plenty of squash in him yet, with the Commonwealth Games in 2018 a target. He is effusive in his praise for the longevity of his long time rival Nick Matthew who, now approaching 35, shows little sign of slowing down. But Willstrop, ever the realist, knows nothing is certain.
“I’ve been a squash player for such a long time and there’s a bigger world out there. You can’t take for granted that you’re going to get back on top of the world when you’re 31 and there are all these young players coming through. And when nothing’s automatic anymore, you do start thinking, crikey, I’m going to have to earn money. Because being a squash player isn’t going to be there forever”.