Third time lucky for Willstrop
By ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor) and HOWARD HARDING (Squash Mad International Correspondent)
James Willstrop and Joelle King are the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal winners after today’s compelling finals in front of packed crowds in Australia.
King triumphed after a thrilling five-game battle with England’s Sarah-Jane Perry, while Willstrop produced a squash master-class to prevent Paul Coll from making it a New Zealand double.
It was third time lucky for Willstrop in the men’s final in front of a capacity crowd of 2,500 excited spectators at the Oxenford Studios in Gold Coast.
Having laboured in the shadows of Nick Matthew for much his career, this was theatre buff Willstrop’s moment to occupy centre stage. And he grasped the opportunity with total physical commitment and exquisite racket skills that delivered deadly winners with both precision and artistry.
He edged a close first game, then dominated the rest of the match with his trademark accuracy in length, width and ball placement, and took advantage of any loose balls offered up by the New Zealander to put away drops and volley drops with supreme confidence.
Both players dealt with the newly-enforced zero tolerance attitude from the referees with enormous conviction, always willing to go the extra mile to play through interference to keep the ball in play.
It was only the very loose shot, squirting out into the mid-court area, that resulted in appeals that were destined to punish any lack of discipline in line and length.
Most of those sins were committed by Coll, such was Willstrop’s dominance and accuracy.
Fittingly, both players embellished the occasion with impeccable manners and fantastic sportsmanship. Inwardly, they were fighting their own fears, expectations and the pressures imposed by the occasion and the skills of a phenomenal opponent. Externally, they showed determination and courtesy in equal measure.
With a 6ft 4in frame that occasionally needs a bit of time to warm things up, Willstrop may have offered up some hints in the first game that he was looking a bit tired after physical battles with Cameron Pilley and Nafiizwan Adnan, the man who put an end to the hopes of his great rival, Nick Matthew, to add a third gold medal to his CV before retiring.
Willstrop, however, admitted that he was still feeling tired from his third round match against Coll’s fellow New Zealander Campbell Grayson, a mach that lasted 70 minutes before his 94-minute quarter-final against Pilley.
Coll, meanwhile, was feeling the effects of a 77-minute quarter-final against Daryl Selby, followed by a 106-minute scrap in the semi-finals against Welsh number one Joel Makin.
Against Makin, Coll appeared almost timid in his conservative approach to the match, presumably hoping his experience of playing at a higher level would see him through against an opponent whose fitness levels are similar to his own.
Here, in the final, he seemed much more relaxed against Willstrop. He played with an attacking freedom that brought out the best in his opponent. As they exchanged drives, Willstrop’s were tighter, more penetrating, and more likely to force a loose return which set up the tall Englishman for an attacking option.
This was the key contrast between the two players. When Coll chose to attack, he couldn’t quite put the ball away. When electing to go crosscourt, he was feeding his tall opponent’s volleying skills. When Willstrop attacked, he buried winner after winner, nailing flat kills and drop shots from the back of the court in addition to his feathered drops and soft volleys, plus a handful of crosscourt slam kills straight into the nick.
The 34-year-old Willstrop triumphed 11-9, 11-4, 11-6 in 47 minutes and said: “It’s stuff you dream of. It’s one of the most brilliant performances I’ve had in my career. It just worked and it clicked – that’s happened today. I don’t know why, maybe the hours of solo practice I’ve put in on my own on court, in Harrogate and Pontefract, all my life.
“It’s an incredible thing – and to make it happen on a big day like today – it’s one of the best performances. Whatever happened today, it’s an achievement.
“I love playing the game – and four years ago (before the 2014 Games in Glasgow) there were some doubts about that – and to think I’m now here with a gold medal in the singles … I can’t really process it to be honest.
“And if you’d talked to me on Friday when I played Campbell (Grayson), I didn’t feel that great about myself, it was a real fight …. and three days later it’s all different.”
Is it his biggest title? “I guess as a title, I reckon it probably is the best. It’s a wonderful occasion – and the atmosphere and everything around it adds to it.”
After hugging all of his England team-mates lined up along the back wall, he then embraced his friend and manager Mick Todd, the Pontefract Squash Club owner. Both of these big men were reduced to tears as the emotion of the occasion finally sank home.
Love, pride, commitment and honesty, and the ability to fight back from adversity, underpin James Willstrop’s approach to his career, and his achievement brought heartfelt messages of congratulations from across the global squash community.
The man who was close to ending his career after a hip operation after the 2014 Games, proved that his skills could see off any opponent in what was once known as the British Empire.
Joelle King, a gold medallist in the Women’s Doubles in 2010, became New Zealand’s first ever Singles gold medallist when she beat England’s Sarah-Jane Perry. It was always clear that the match would be a close-fought affair, and so it was.
Fourth seed Perry had two games balls in the first, but it was King who closed out her fourth game ball to win the opener 16-14. The New Zealander opened up a two-game lead – but Perry drew level to force a decider.
From eight-all in the fifth, King moved ahead to clinch the match 16-14, 11-8, 6-11, 11-13, 11-8 after 78 minutes take gold. There was a moment of huge controversy at 8-8 in the fifth when Perry brushed against King on her backswing and stopped herself from completing her shot. Her exuberant shout probably signified she was expecting a stroke, but the referee awarded a No-Let, which was backed up by the video referee.
Perry later admitted that she might well have nightmares for years to come as she reflected on one incident that seemed to encapsulate the uncertainty in players’ minds because of an un-announced approach by referees to clamp down on lets.
On winning her country’s first gold, King acknowledged: “Yes, it feels pretty good. We’ve had some great names that have come through the squash community from New Zealand and no-one’s managed to do it yet – so it’s a privilege, to be honest, to be the first one to do it and I’m just looking forward to celebrating with my team-mates.
“Yes, I’m back on court tomorrow in the doubles – 11am, I’ve heard – so there’s no rest for the wicked really. You’ve just got to go back, recover and be ready to go again. Doubles is a completely different format. I think I’ll be a bit rusty in my first round!”
Whilst seeded two, King became the event’s highest-ranked player after moving up to four in the world on the eve of the start of the event. “To be honest I didn’t pay much attention to that,” said the 29-year-old. “Obviously I was excited and happy that my ranking had moved but I didn’t really look any further than the fact there were probably about 12 players in this draw that could realistically win the tournament – so I just took it match by match.
“Today was typical final squash – a big occasion and both players wanting to give it everything they have. All I can say is she played really well – she just did not go away, she didn’t let me have it all my own way, that’s for sure.”
The Bronze medal matches were just as dramatic and emotionally-charged. The women’s clash saw Malaysian superstar Nicol David, the long-time world number one and gold medallist in 2010 and 2014, take on fast-rising Welsh star Tesni Evans.
Undaunted by a 4/0 career head-to-head record in the 34-year-old Malaysian’s favour, sixth seed Evans (pictured above at the medal ceremony with King and Perry) delivered a scintillating performance to see off David, the No.3 seed, 11-7, 3-11, 12-10, 11-7.
“It’s truly amazing – unbelievable really – I’m absolutely over the moon,” exclaimed the Welsh wizard. “I’ve had a great week and to beat someone like Nicol for the bronze medal is just out of this world. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, 5 years ago, I never would have thought I would beat her. She’s an absolute legend. That’s the first time I’ve ever beaten her so that’s extra special as well.
“I’ve gone from the bottom of the scale to the top of the scale, literally. I was really down yesterday after my semi-final match – but thank you to Dave (Evans) and my team, they really picked me up last night. They made me just realise where I am and that I still had a medal to fight for.
“I can’t do too much celebrating tonight as I’ve got a doubles match tomorrow. At this minute I don’t know but, don’t worry, I’ll definitely be celebrating.”
The first Games medal for Wales for 20 years was greeted with delight by national coach David Evans. “It’s an amazing result for Tesni and Welsh squash as a whole, getting a medal in the Commonwealth Games,” said the former British Open champion. “The last one was in 1998 with Alex Gough, so to get a medal is unbelievable.
“But more, to beat Nicol – who we’ve all got so much respect for, with what she’s achieved. For Tes to beat Nicol to get a bronze just adds a little bit extra to it.”
On the impact this will have for Welsh squash, Evans added: “I’m only a mere coach, but funding-wise this should help. What Tesni’s done in getting a Commonwealth Games medal is pretty special – we’re a very proud country, we all fight for each other. Hopefully it will put squash back up there again.”
Defending champion David was composed about the result: “I gave what I could today – someone has to come out a winner. I just couldn’t quite put some things together. It’s tough out there but I’m really proud of the years of representing Malaysia.
“Maybe it’s pushing it a little bit to make another Commonwealth Games. If I play it would only be for the singles – and that would definitely be a tough task.”
Malaysia took bronze in the men’s play-off where 12th seed Nafiizwan Adnan beat Welshman Joel Makin, the No.11 seed, 11-7, 6-11, 9-11, 11-4, 11-5 in 81 minutes.
When asked how big the win was, Adnan replied: “It was the biggest ever match I’ve ever played – it was enormous. I can’t believe it, I was so nervous just now.
“Today I’m the first male player in Malaysia to win a medal – I am very proud, not just for myself but for my team. Everyone’s behind me – my coach and the support team. Every day we prepare – so I want to give to them.”
Commonwealth Games 2018, Oxenford Studios, Gold Coast, Australia.
 James Willstrop (ENG) bt  Paul Coll (NZL) 11-9, 11-4, 11-6 (47m)
Third place play-off:
 Nafiizwan Adnan (MAS) bt  Joel Makin (WAL) 11-7, 6-11, 9-11, 11-4, 11-5 (81m)
 Joelle King (NZL) bt  Sarah-Jane Perry (ENG) 16-14, 11-8, 6-11, 11-13, 11-8 (78m)
Third place play-off:
 Tesni Evans (WAL) bt  Nicol David (MAS) 11-7, 3-11, 12-10, 11-7 (40m)
Pictures by TONI VAN DER KREEK