Squash: England’s conveyor belt of talent means the sport is in good hands

James Willstrop and Adrian Waller
James Willstrop and Adrian Waller
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In sport there is a tendency we have to hark back to the past with affection; somehow the passage of time seems to heighten our nostalgia towards a particular era or athlete.

It’s not just in sport: Politicians are often only revered retrospectively. Churchill’s Conservative party lost the election in 1945, just after the end of the War. Now look at his reputation. Musicians too are often judged by their early output and this sometimes impacts conceptions of later work.

England Squash has produced a host of world-class squash players over the last 20 years. World number ones, British Open and World Champions have not been scarce. Testament to the players, but also to the systems of coaching and support within and outside the association, which is second to none. Good systems mean there is pressure to keep repeating this success.

Unfortunately there is an unsympathetic question which surfaces every now and then: ‘Where are the next batch of English players to follow you lot? The quality isn’t what it was before at junior level!’

Firstly, I should point out that generations like the current one cannot continue prospering in this way. It is simply impossible to produce world number ones and world champions constantly.

As a further answer though to these barbed and critical questions, the premier Junior event in the world, the British Junior Open is played every January in Sheffield, and is the marker that the cynics probably cite. The English players do quite well, but don’t have the clout of the Egyptians at those tender ages.

We know that Egyptian kids are channelled into squash with greater zeal, whereas the English tend to take their time and mature later. We get less sun, too, which is clearly a disadvantage. Being a Yorkshireman I can vouch for that.

I remember winning the British Open in 1997 aged 13, and the magazine report posted the headline that I was the sole British winner in all age groups, and it asked where England’s other winners were. Sixteen years later, in 2013, the headlines were the same when Emily Whitlock won the girls U19 event. Those ‘disappointments’ in 1997 have now become part of England’s most prolific generation ever. There is no reason why today’s generation can’t continue this success in some way.

But becoming world class involves an intricate process of development, and it certainly doesn’t have to involve setting the world on fire as a kid, or as a 20-year-old. Results at junior level are a guide, but not the be all and end all.

As a young player, Peter Nicol, to my knowledge, never won a British or world junior title. It was an unremarkable junior career that segued into an unbelievable senior one. Laura Massaro became British number one for the first time in 2012 at the age of 29, as a result of continuous application over many years and now at her peak she finds herself a British Open Champion.

Adrian Waller and Joe Lee are two players who have very exciting futures. Both 24, there’s little hype surrounding them but with the help of those close they are quietly going about their business, travelling the world, amassing crucial experience. These things take time, and that’s just what the critics don’t understand. They quickly overlook two players like Adrian and Joe, because they haven’t risen to the top right now.

Nick Matthew is the current world number 1 and was ranked 38 in his 22nd year, Adrian was 42 in his. Joe was 57, so they aren’t far off statistically either.

They have the attitude and the drive and they look set to do some damage in years to come.

These criticisms of England’s perceived lack of talent coming through should be questioned. The coaches and support systems are clever and calculated, and are still working as efficiently as ever; they have had an immeasurable impact on my career. Squash is a sport which requires years of persistence. Players and coaches need time, and they realise this. It is important that they have faith in their work, if others don’t.

James Willstrop, lefvt, in action against Mohamed ElShorbagy in Dubai. Picture courtesy of PSA

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