Tough balance to stay fresh with a constant treadmill of training and travel
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
Charlie Lee is aiming to put the pressure of injuries and illness behind him as he gets ready for his debut at Canary Wharf Classic against superstar Miguel Angel Rodriguez.
The 23-year-old Lee has been awarded the wild card and is fired up at the prospect of meeting the Colombian Cannonball in front of a packed crowd as the tournament gets under way on Super Sunday (November 14).
World No.12 Rodriguez won the British Open in 2018 and is still one of the top athletes in the game at the age of 35. Here, we catch up with Charlie as he talks about life on and off the court and
THE BIG INTERVIEW: 11 POINTS WITH WILD CARD CHARLIE LEE
1: Charlie, you must be looking forward to your first appearance on the glass court at the East Wintergarden – and especially against such an amazing player as Miguel Angel Rodriguez?
A: Absolutely. I’ve dreamed of playing here since my first time spectating as a 10 year old! The atmosphere is always first class and being so close to home it’ll be great to have a few friendly faces in the crowd. To play a top player like Miguel at such an iconic venue really is an incredible opportunity, so thank you to Tim and everyone involved in the event. I can’t wait to get out there.
2: It’s probably the strongest draw we have ever had in 18 years at Canary Wharf. Who are the players you are most looking forward to seeing in action this week?
A: With a line up like that it’s not easy to single anyone out. I’ll definitely be watching as much as I can and trying to learn from the countless world class players in the draw. I thought the Qatar final between Paul Coll and Diego Elias was fantastic so it’ll be great to see them in action live. Ali Farag is obviously incredible to watch and learn from to . . . amongst so many others.
3: Life, they say, is a learning process. Which players you have learned most from in your career, and what are the special things they do that have caught your eye?
A: Starting out I was very lucky to have my brother Joe and Tom Richards training at the same club as me (St George’s). Having that access to regularly hit with and talk to professionals as a junior was a real fast-tracker and definitely taught me a lot. We’ve also fortunately had loads of top players in our PSL team through the years. Watching how they operate up close, pestering them for hits and getting to know them through that was and has been invaluable. Mohamed ElShorbagy, Daryl Selby and Borja Golan to name a few.
I also loved the early 2010s era with so many legends occupying the top ranking spots. Having Nick Matthew and James Willstrop as two Englishmen at the top of their game during that period was a constant source of inspiration.
Being able to watch them live at events around the UK as a youngster and then occasionally training with them at squads since I’ve turned pro has shown me how complete a player you have to be to reach the summit of the game.
The accuracy, tactical nous and incredible physicality particularly stand out as things that caught my eye. I’ve still got lots to improve and always try to find things in the current top players’ games that I can try to emulate to progress my own.
4: Top marks to your dad, Danny, for staging several events at St. George’s Hill in Weybridge to provide tournament play to help so many professional players. I’m guessing that must have helped you to get back into the swing of things after lockdown.
A: He’s put a lot into the game for so many years now. The Pro Squash Challenge Series has been fantastic during the past 12 months in providing competitive action for so many players – particularly during times when there were more or less no events in the UK.
I think it also conjured up plenty of interest from fans who were desperate to watch some squash, as well as a slightly different pressure for the players with the ‘title fight’ element.
For me personally, it kept my motivation up at times where there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of being able to play a tournament. I think it could definitely be an exciting concept in the future, especially with crowds back.
5: You were obviously playing some great stuff in The Eriswell Challenge at St. George’s Hill in Weybridge in July. You beat Nick Wall in the first round and Emyr Evans in the quarter-finals (both in straight games) but then had to retire before the semi-final against Rory Stewart after Nick texted you just before your match to tell you he had tested positive. That must have been a huge disappointment.
A: Yes, it was immensely disappointing and difficult to come to terms with to be honest! Things were going very smoothly, I was feeling confident and playing well. Plus it was my first PSA tournament for nearly three years, so more than anything I was loving being back. For it to end so abruptly and in such bizarre circumstances felt unfair, but these things can happen in sport.
6: Your brother Joe then beat Rory in a monster final in the Eriswell Challenge lasting 83 minutes! I understand you then suffered a freak ankle injury training with Joe when your feet got tangled up. What happened?
A: Despite my own disappointment it was great to see Joe win it and be in such good form all summer after his long term injury. I’d have loved the chance to face him in the final at our home club but hopefully we get another opportunity soon.
With regards to the ankle, it happened a few days after my 10-day isolation subsequent to my tournament ending. I’d spent the isolation training at home and felt I maintained fitness well, but just as I was getting back to normal on-court training I rolled my ankle pretty badly which resulted in a double ligament rupture.
After crutches and a boot came a couple of months of progressive rehab. I managed to play my first tournament back last week. So all in all not the best run of luck but I’m still very positive about the future.
7: With your blessing, let’s talk about some of the health and fitness issues facing every professional – and especially the challenges facing young players who have to juggle the need to stay at optimum health with the stress of travelling all over the UK and beyond to play tournaments and league matches. I understand you had some issues with fatigue in the past. How did you cope with that?
A: It’s certainly a tough balance to strike, there’s definitely not a short answer! I think in the midst of a season it’s easy to underestimate the toll travelling can take on the body alongside training, league matches and everything else that comes with being a squash player. It’s also easy to disregard just how hard squash actually is physically!
My issues started in late 2018 when I got ill and essentially came back to hard training and trekking round the country for league matches too quickly. It was the feeling of not doing enough with tournaments on the horizon and fear of losing ground which made me come back too soon. This led to months of feeling run down, with bad headaches more or less every day.
It was tough for a number of reasons, particularly as there aren’t really any answers as to when you’ll be better and feeling normal again, plus the stress attached to losing crucial months of my career wasn’t easy. Some days I felt better and thought I’d made the whole thing up, only to feel bad again the next day.
Eventually things started to improve and in September 2019 I was able to begin very light progressive training with the help of The English Institute of Sport in Bisham. I returned to competition at The British Nationals in February 2020 but then sadly the pandemic began.
In some ways this allowed me to consolidate my progressive work and not return too quickly to the pressures of travelling the world tour, although it probably went on a bit long in the end! I’ve been feeling great since then anyway and have learned a lot from the experience in terms of managing my workload.
8: With your partner Jasmine Hutton climbing the women’s rankings, you must talk a lot about squash all the time! How often are you able to see each other play?
A: We spend a lot of time in the same training environments so I guess during those parts of the day the chat is likely quite squash focused! The rest of the time I think we try to get away from it. As far as watching each other, we’re part of a few of the same league teams and occasionally play the same tournaments. She’s mostly playing in the world series events now, so I’ll always watch her matches in those if they’re streamed. Hopefully soon I’ll be joining her in the bigger events.
9: What does a normal week in squash look like for you two?
A: It would generally be pretty similar in terms of sessions, although we obviously work on different aspects of our games, so that dictates the sessions we do to an extent. It’d generally be at least one squash session a day 5 or 6 days a week and then solos, gym work, ghosting in the other sessions. Some weeks are of course different with tournaments and league matches or if we are in Birmingham with our coach Rob Owen then we’ll perhaps spend more time on court to work on things.
10: Away from squash, what are your favourite things in life?
A: I’m a massive Liverpool fan and try to watch every game. I used to play football every week but these days that wouldn’t be the smartest idea. I love playing tennis, padel and golf when time allows too – all sports really. I also enjoy making electronic music on my laptop, mixing records and playing a few instruments pretty poorly!
Since my ankle injury I started a finance course, too, which has been very interesting and kept me productive. Hopefully I can progress from my current beginner level!
11: Lockdown put everyone’s lives on hold and gave us all a time for reflection. How did you and Jasmine cope with that break from squash? Did you keep training? Did you start doing anything differently and come back with fresh ideas once lockdown was over?
A: Before we could get back on court we were doing lots of running, garden/lounge circuits and zoom sessions with friends from the tour. I remember the weather was strangely good at the start of lockdown so that definitely gave us an extra push to keep going and get outside.
I tried to take it day by day and not overthink how long it might last, as I imagine looking too far ahead would’ve killed my motivation. If you’d have told me it’d be over a year after the first lockdown that I’d be able to play a PSA tournament I’m not sure I’d have been able to train how I did.
We were lucky to get back on court after a few months, too, as part of the elite athlete exemption. That allowed us to feel as though we had a more ‘normal’ routine and just get on with things and keep trying to improve.
Thank you, Charlie. The very best of luck against Miguel at Canary Wharf.
Pictures courtesy of Steve Cubbins (squashsite.com)