‘Joel’s physically strong but I’m the opposite – I’ve got to rely on my racket’
By DONNA HELMER – Squash Mad Correspondent
England’s James Willstrop is savouring the chance to defend his crown when the AJ Bell British National Championships return to Nottingham next week from 13-16th February.
The former world No.1, who will be appearing in his 22nd consecutive Nationals, will have to overcome some of the best in the business including hot favourite Joel Makin, the World No.11 who he’ i seeded to meet in the final.
Welshman Makin beat the World No.18 from Yorkshire 3-1 in New York last month at the Tournament of Champions which has provided Willstrop with plenty more motivation to retain his national crown.
“Defeats are good because you always examine yourself more closely,” said Willstrop, who, after claiming the title in 2007 and 2008, suffered a decade of hurt, losing six finals to Nick Matthew, before finally clinching his third title last year.
“When you have that doubt, you’re always motivated to right the wrong as they’re upsetting, annoying and distressing. With a win, everything’s in your favour, write-ups and so on, it’s all good.
“I don’t know how things are going to pan out of course but Joel’s very physically strong, those are his strongest qualities, whereas mine are possibly the opposite – I have to use my racket.
“I’m never going to beat him on a club court because he’d run me into the ground, but on a glass court I’ve got possibilities, no question. The form he’s in, he’s got to be the man we’re going to have to get past.”
Englishmen Adrian Waller (World No.20), Declan James (21) and Daryl Selby (25) will provide stern competition for Willstrop and the 25-year-old Makin.
Not to mention teen sensation Sam Todd and the up-and-coming George Parker and Patrick Rooney, who are showing the game to be in rude health.
“I’ve not got that much to lose now and these guys are going to beat me at some point,” said Willstrop, who hails from the same Pontefract club in Yorkshire as Todd.
“I want to encourage them but I’m trying as hard as I can to stick with them.”
With experience and age has come a new-found appreciation for the sport Willstrop adores. He added: “A love of the game has taken over and it’s a really good position to be in when you’re of an age where you appreciate it.
“At 25, you’re thinking about winning, ranking, breaking records, whatever. You get overrun by that stuff.
“I feel OK and that’s all I can go on. I know I’ve got to train a bit differently. I can’t train like a maniac any more, as I did in my early 20s.”
One potential carrot to keep him playing at the highest level until he’s nearly 40, however, is the prospect of a home 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“I haven’t really been thinking about it but a year ago I was thinking I’d like to get to the 2021 World Team Championships in New Zealand,” said the 2018 Games gold medallist.
“There has to be another tournament after the World Teams. It’s doubtful whether I’d be good enough in 2022 but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
First round action starts on Thursday February 13 at the University of Nottingham Sports Centre and Nottingham Squash Rackets Club.
Tickets start from as little as £10 and can be purchased at isquashstore.com. Save £5 when booking online.
Pictures by STEVE CUBBINS and ARTYOM LISS