England No.2 James Willstrop has called his great rival Nick Matthew one of the country’s all-time best squash players and one of the “greatest of his generation” ahead of the National Squash Championships.
The country’s top ranked players could come head-to-head in the tournament’s final for the fifth time in six years as Matthew searches for a record ninth title.
Willstrop, 33, of Pontefract, Yorkshire, first faces a potentially tricky route through the draw with a quarter-final clash against Joe Lee [5/8] and a semi-final reunion with England No.3 Daryl Selby [3/4] on the cards.
His preparation for the tournament has been boosted by a terrific run to the semi-final of the Tournament of Champions in New York earlier this month, where he put an end to a 10-year wait for victory against Matthew.
And he was full of praise for his England colleague, playing down the significance of the 19-match losing streak that preceded the win. He said: “I’m not sure I build it up as much as other people to be honest. Of course, it’s nice to get a win over him as it’s been difficult for me to do. They’re just statistics, and I know everyone loves statistics, but I’m far more interested in my performances and the games themselves.
“He’s a fantastic player. He has proved himself to be one of the greatest players of our generation and certainly one of the best English players of all time. No-one beats him easily so why should I beat him?”
The World No.9 said: “There’s a group of younger players that are really interesting, they’re working really hard; some of them are really hitting the mark and making moves, like Patrick Rooney and Mark Fuller [both qualifiers]. It’s a group that has the potential to really step up and I think Declan James [5/8] has achieved as much as any of them so far, it’s going to be very exciting to see what he does over the next year.
“They’re all working hard and learning from the help they’re getting from England Squash. Daryl [Selby] is also in great form and no-one has really given him a mention. He’s a really tough competitor and a clever squash player, he’s going to be an enormous contender in this tournament.”
Last weekend, tennis was propelled back in time as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Venus and Serena Williams all contested grand slam finals for the first time in eight years at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Wins for 35-year-olds Federer and Serena were proof the evolution of sports science can prolong athletes’ careers and this is something that will continue, Willstrop said.
“My training and preparation has changed a lot over the last two or three years,” he said. “I’m getting older and I’ve had hip surgery so I’m more careful now during sessions. I used to hammer myself in training but now I choose drills that are less taxing on the body.
“The science of sport has improved so much. What happened in the tennis at the weekend is becoming more possible because the knowledge of keeping the body healthy is growing all the time. To see that happening in the tennis gives us another lift. I’ve run into decent form and Nick’s holding his form brilliantly, neither of us are young anymore. People tell you ‘you are too old’ and you need to get away from that, you need to keep going and feeling good.”
Play begins with qualifying at the National Squash Centre, in Rowsley Street, Manchester, on Tuesday 9th February, before the main draw commences on the Thursday. Finals will be played on Sunday 12th. Book your tickets now.