James is a danger man seeded five at Canary Wharf
Interview by Alan Thatcher, Squash Mad Editor
Former world number one James Willstrop returns to the Canary Wharf Classic looking forward to entertaining the crowds at one of his favourite venues.
Willstrop, 33, is almost back to his dominant best after a long spell out of the game following a hip operation.
The high point of his recent renaissance came when he produced a display of squash that was close to sublime perfection when he beat world number one Mohamed Elshorbagy in the third round of the World Championship in Seattle.
A four-times champion at Canary Wharf, Willstrop is seeded five this year and meets New Zealander Paul Coll in what should be a entertaining first round tie. Coll came into the main draw and avoided the qualifying competition after the withdrawal of Pakistan’s Nasir Iqbal.
Coll, the 23-year-old world No.41, is a supremely fit athlete, is renowned for some spectacular dives around court, and enters the fray at the East Wintergarden having won five PSA titles in 2015, the last being the London Open in November.
Willstrop lost in the first round of the Windy City Open in Chicago last week to Omar Mosaad, the world No.4 and top seed at Canary Wharf.
He revealed: “The way the seedings work now mean that if you are in the 9-16 group you can face the top guys in the first round. It means that you have to be ready to play from day one.
“There are no easy first round draws any more. You have to enter every tournament well prepared, mentally and physically, and ready to play if you want to go further in any event.
“The strength in the game is phenomenal these days and luckily for me I enjoy playing the big matches. I have had certainly had some tough first round draws since my return from the operation!”
Willstrop is looking forward to maintaining his unique record of playing in every single edition of the Canary Wharf Classic, now entering its 13th year.
He added: “I have an awful lot of affection for two major tournaments on the world circuit. They are the Tournament of Champions, which is held at Grand Central Station in New York, and the Canary Wharf Classic.
“Canary Wharf has always been a genuine favourite of mine. It has a wonderful venue, brilliant sell-out crowds, and a top-class team working hard behind the scenes to make everything run so smoothly.
“The players really appreciate it. And that’s why they love working for a team of people who are just very supportive and look after the players.
“The whole event, with the arena and the crowd, is a wonderful package. I certainly hope to enjoy one or two more in my career.
“Canary Wharf has given me some great experiences over the years and the feeling when you arrive on the Sunday night, getting ready to play in front of one of the best audiences anywhere in the world, still gives me a great feeling.
“I feel very privileged to have had those sort of occasions in my career. As players, we don’t have many bad experiences on tour, and I am very sincere in my feelings about it.”
In a reflective mood ahead of his return to London, Willstrop was happy to discuss his performance in the World Championship.
Unseeded, he beat top seed Mohamed Elshorbagy and number five seed Miguel Rodriguez of Colombia to reach the semi-finals, where he succumbed to the eventual champion, Gregory Gaultier of France.
I asked him what moments he particularly recalled from his victory against world number one Elshorbagy, who has dominated this season so far.
“Beating Mohamed was one of those special days in my career,” he said. “I can’t remember particular moments from the match, but it was up there alongside playing the double-fake shot against Ramy Ashour in the North American Open, playing John White in the 2007 Canary Wharf final, and playing Ramy in New York.
“The result was wonderful for me, of course, but the important thing was how well I played, which in a strange way was a better feeling than the result, if that makes sense.
“I have been thinking about what happened and I guess it was one of those days when everything just came together.
“In training, we work hard, we put the hours in and somehow it just clicked against one of the world’s best players.
“When I look back I can’t remember specific things but I can remember being 10-7 up in the third game and being one point away from victory. All credit to him for the way he fought back. His champion’s attitude meant that he played well for a five-minute period to win that game but it was then up to me how I handled it.
“To be honest, much of it I put down to one of the best performances as a coaching from David Campion. Normally my father Malcolm is in my corner but he did not travel to America for this one.
“What made such a big difference was David’s tone of voice. There was zero negativity in the things he said when I came off court and into my corner.
“He told me that there was no need to panic, my squash had not deteriorated, and that I was still 2-1 up.
“Losing a game from match ball up can cause immense psychological trauma and all sorts of things can go through your brain but David’s words meant that I did not change my mental state as I went back on court for the fourth game.
“That was the key. He was judging me on my performance and not the result. People may not understand that kind of attitude but David deserves credit for the way he handled it so well.
“There was no magic formula, but the tone of his voice told me that things were good. He helped me to keep that level of confidence when I went back on court.”
Pictures by STEVE LINE (www.squashpics.com) and STEVE CUBBINS (www.squashsite.co.uk)