A good dying length takes as much skill as a triple fake, James Willstrop proclaimed as he talked Squash IQ through the 40 shots featured above.
Our ‘40 at 40’ video features some of ‘The Marksman’s’ best winners and mega-rallies from a more-than-20-year professional career that is still going strong today, on the eve of his 40th birthday (on 15 August 2023).
Willstrop may be best known for his extravagant ‘windmills’ and luxurious long drops, but some of the subtle holds to length featured in the video are just as hard to execute, the Yorkshireman emphasised as he talked us through his memories of the 40 clips and reflected on how long he may continue playing.
Tilting at windmills
Willstrop has made the ‘triple fake’ his trademark shot, famously outfoxing Ramy Ashour with it in 2010 before inflicting the same treatment on Karim Abdel Gawad in 2018 (see clip 40).
“A lot of things came together in that rally,” Willstrop said of the Gawad exchange that floored commentators Joey Barrington and Nicky Muller.
“It was a fantastic rally for a start. I think the rally enhances the final shot. Then the commentary gave it a lot of sparkle as well, as Joey often does. And then the crowd, the lights, the venue…”
“Certainly there are other shots in there that are just as good but don’t really get played [on YouTube and social media],” the former world number one continued.
“There are many dying length shots I’ve hit in my career that are less exciting to people but just as skilful from the point of view of a squash player. It’s a squash player’s shot. A squash aficionado will notice it, but it’s the exhibition stuff that people outside the game really relate to.”
Willstrop also picked out clip 38, where he stuns Ramy Ashour with a reaction volley, as another that stood out.
“I really remember that Ramy match in Chicago,” he recalled
“It was one of our best matches but it went under the radar. I felt the quality that day was the best we ever did. Although it’s the two fakes that have got all the attention, that reaction shot is definitely comparable.”
Most memorable matches
When it comes to his most memorable matches, Willstrop also highlighted his 2018 Commonwealth Games gold victory against Paul Coll, as well as the 2011 Gregory Gaultier encounter that propelled him to world number one.
It featured a 57-minute first game, which Willstrop lost before going on to win the match in four.
“The match itself petered out a bit and he got cramp,” Willstrop said.
“But it sticks out because I would have taken the number one spot if I won. I would have run through a brick wall – and done anything that day – to win, hence why I lost the first game in 57 minutes and still came out rampaging in the second.”
Nick Matthew marathon
But Willstrop’s marathon 2010 Canary Wharf encounter with arch-rival Nick Matthew will arguably go down as his most epic battle (at least to date), even if he was forced to retire with cramp in the fifth.
“It was two competitors at the peak of our time. We were about as good as we got at that point. The rivalry was very intense and the contrast between the two of us was very strong,” Willstrop recalled of the 127-minute battle.
“Everything came together and we produced [a level of squash] to the point I couldn’t walk.
“That’s what the game is about. It’s a tremendous test of endurance, skill and agility and it has that ability to reduce us to a crumpled mess. No matter how good we get at it, the game of squash will find us out at some point, which is why it’s so exciting for us all.”
Despite not being one to go large on his birthdays, Willstrop was glad of the opportunity to watch a show reel of some of his finest shots and rallies.
“At the end of it all it feels like those moments are almost the highlights, in a funny way,” he said
“Obviously it’s nice to win titles and be world number one, but those moments where the crowd are left breathless or you get a massive round of applause – where you know you’ve affected people in the way you’ve done something artistically or in a sporting sense – that’s one of the great things we can do.”
Playing past 40
Willstrop also addressed how he is balancing squash with his other interests, and how he feels about the prospect of continuing to play professional beyond his 40th.
Despite playing noticeably fewer matches last season, ‘The Marksman’ showed he can still challenge the very best when he took Mohamed Elshorbagy to the wire at Canary Wharf.
But the former world number one conceded that he is taking it “week by week” as he increasingly balances playing with his other interests such as coaching and acting.
Willstrop has played 731 matches and 246 tournaments on the PSA.
But like a squash version of Roger Federer, the 39-year old is getting increasingly selective about how often he plays (appearing in just nine tournaments last season).
“I don’t need to play squash. I’m doing it just for fun,” Willstrop explained.
“But when I have the ability to produce performances like I did in March, part of me thinks: why would I just let all that go and throw it away too quickly, just because I’m 40?
“I do love it but I’m a little bit conscious of the toll it takes and don’t want to have a knackered body.”
Willstrop admitted that he no longer has “the mental intensity or desire” to engage in eight hours of squash a day as he balances his career in the sport with other interests, including acting.
But his passion for treading the boards has actually benefited his squash, the Yorkshireman maintained.
“It would be really nice to go into acting as a profession, but part of me doesn’t want to do that as it gives me that time away from squash,” he explained.
“I’m absolutely sure it helped me. After I was doing plays I’d go back to play a tournament and would often play really well. It’s something about exercising another part of the mind: engaging in that other activity that gives you time away from the sport allows your subconscious to take hold a little bit.
“I think some of the athletes aren’t very good at that. I don’t think I was very good at that. It becomes all consuming: it’s just train, eat, sleep; train, eat, sleep – and that can get dangerous.
“Later in my career there were other things to think about and I’m sure that helped my squash.
“Like having a family and having children. A lot of athletes say it takes you away from the sport and some people are scared about it ruining things. I don’t think it needs to do that, and it can be a real help.”
Coaching has also “taken over” following the passing of James’ father Malcolm, who had built up and run Pontefract Squash & Leisure Club.
“It’s just how life has worked out,” he said.
“Malcolm wasn’t ill for very long and was basically running a world-class coaching system. Things had to happen quickly. We [James and his partner, former world number one Vanessa Atkinson – pictured above] just jumped into this coaching position because it was what we felt needed to happen. We’re running a lot of what happens at Ponte, with the help of others.
“The training I do there has to be mixed in with that, so I’m just doing bits here and there.”
Will we see Willstrop next season?
Having recently announced his retirement at aged 40, Spain’s Borja Golan continued to compete successfully on the PSA tour by focusing more on his shot selection and ball control.
Even Golan, however, was in awe of the precision and shot-making abilities that make Willstrop such a unique spectacle in every tournament he enters.
So, can fans expect to see more of Willstrop’s laser-like racket skills on Squash TV next year?
“People are obsessed with age, and I’m not really thinking about that if I can help it,” Willstrop said.
“If I feel okay, the physio is happy with me and I’m not getting too many aches and pains, I can maybe keep going and have one or two more occasions like March. It was tremendously exciting being back in that arena again being able to compete with players like Mohamed.
“I do enjoy training so I’ll try and train a bit over the summer. If the body responds, there might be a reason to play on a bit if I can get into some tournaments.”