Saturday, December 2, 2023

Nick Matthew’s Commonwealth Games Countdown: England’s players can enjoy being tourists for a couple of days but then it’s all down to winning medals

‘We have a great blend of youth, professionalism and valuable experience in Birmingham’
EXCLUSIVE By NICK MATTHEW, three-times CG gold medallist 

The England squad will enter the athletes’ village in Birmingham on Tuesday with everyone in good physical shape and looking forward to a successful Commonwealth Games on home soil.

We have a mixture of three young newcomers making their debuts, three players who are established competitors on the PSA World Tour, and three very experienced senior squad members who will be able to pass on their knowledge and knowhow.

It’s a well-balanced mix of enthusiasm and experience. Alison Waters is in the latter category (along with James Willstrop and Daryl Selby) but is probably the most enthusiastic of everyone!

It is a pleasure to be working alongside Tania Bailey as assistant coaches to David Campion, and we also have Jenny Denyer on board to offer psychological support and a very experienced physio in Jade Leader completes the team.

I was training with my Academy group this week at my home club of Hallamshire in Sheffield and Declan James joined us for a bit of last-minute preparation ahead of the Games. Despite the record temperatures in the UK it was a real pleasure to work on the showcourt that bears my name because it has air conditioning!

Prior to that we had enjoyed two full training camps in the last two weeks in Manchester and Loughborough – where we bumped into boxer Anthony Joshua!

Nick Matthew in action against James Willstrop in the 2014 final in Glasgow

This squad has many similarities to previous Commonwealth Games teams and England will always be expected to be among the favourites for medals.

When I made my Games debut in Melbourne in 2006 I didn’t know what I was going into. As a newcomer, you have to get used to all the adrenaline and the vibes surrounding the event, the thrill of the Opening Ceremony and being surrounded by so many famous athletes, but you don’t want to get too carried away.

My advice to the newer members of the squad is to treat it like any other event. The court is the same size, the opposition will be the same as usual, apart from one or two new faces in the early rounds from the smaller Commonwealth nations, although there is sure to be an extra buzz because of the big crowds.

I remember James Willstrop warming up on court in Glasgow in 2014 when the doors opened to allow the spectators into the arena, and as he finished his drop and drive routine there were 1,000 fans inside cheering him on!

In Melbourne, James and I were paired together for the doubles and there was an assumption that we would gel into a successful team. Everything looked good in practice but the actual competition was different to anything we had been exposed to in practice.

Fortunately, Peter Nicol and Lee Beachill won the men’s doubles gold medal, beating Australia’s Stewart Boswell and Anthony Ricketts in the final.

Doubles is very unpredictable, and some matches feel like the outcome is decided by a toss of a coin. There are always smaller margins that will decide the results but the better prepared teams will usually do well.

This year we have two newcomers in Gina Kennedy and Lucy Turmel but they have been through a thorough and successful preparation with the World Doubles and various Test matches.

New squad members Patrick Rooney and Gina Kennedy pictured at the World Doubles in Glasgow

I have so many amazing memories of playing in the Commonwealth Games and I have a feeling that Birmingham will be similar to Glasgow in 2014, when there were sellout crowds every day for each session in the singles and the doubles. Over 11 days that is quite an achievement.

James and I went into Glasgow with each of us having one or two injury issues but we still managed to produce an outstanding match in the men’s singles final, which I managed to win 3-2.

In the doubles, Adrian Grant and I got to the final against David Palmer and Cameron Pilley and it turned out to be the last event in the entire programme.

Unfortunately, there may have been a slight block by Mr Pilley as he hit the winning shot down the right hand wall that gave Australia the gold medal and brought the Games to a close!

That showed the fine margins that can mean the difference between gold and silver, when it all comes down to a single shot. But those big moments make the whole experience more exciting.

My advice to squash fans is simple: if you can’t get tickets for the singles then make sure you go to the doubles because the Commonwealth Games gives the doubles a fantastic stage to showcase this side of our sport.

The event is also a lot more tribal than the singles, and you can certainly see that energy, hunger and national pride coursing through the veins when players pull on their team shirts.

I have competed in two men’s doubles finals and they have both been dramatic and sometimes stressful events.

In Glasgow, after I beat James in the singles final, I and had to go through the post-match media interviews, followed by the anti-doping tests and then more interviews with the BBC TV team, who produced such brilliant coverage of the squash competition, including a stint with the whole England squad on Gary Lineker’s sofa in the BBC studio!

The 2010 men’s singles final in Delhi resulted in a very late night for Nick, and an early start the following morning for the doubles!

I got to sleep around 2am and my doubles partner and room-mate Adrian Grant woke me up in time to catch the 7am shuttle to take us to the venue for a first round match scheduled to start at 9am.

Adrian was chomping at the bit to go but I felt hungover, even though I had not touched a drop the previous evening.

I told Adrian that he would need to carry me for a couple of days and I am glad that he did because we reached the final and there was more at stake than just the medals riding on the match.

Although we lost that huge battle, the result meant England topped the medals table in squash for the first time. Our analyst Stafford Murray couldn’t bear to watch and went into the Scotstoun badminton hall until it was all over!

The crowds make a huge difference, of course, and watching Peter Nicol play David Palmer in the final of the 2006 Games in Melbourne was the single best atmosphere for a squash match I have ever experienced.

Nick’s media load in Glasgow meant a late night after winning the singles title, and just a few hours’ sleep before starting in the doubles

Battling against an opponent in phenomenal form and with a crescendo of noisy support for Palmer, Peter produced a brilliant performance to put his name in the history books. Palmer was playing at an unreal level and Peter still beat him.

The memories of that experience certainly helped to set me up for the Games in Glasgow. The Scots played out of their skin in the singles and doubles and the huge support they received from the home crowd brought out all the tribal instincts every time they took to the court.

One of the funniest memories of Glasgow was playing against Alan Clyne in the singles and you asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to both of us during the knock-up!

The Scottish doubles teams also fed off that enormous crowd support and each pair was greater than the sum of their parts. Adrian and I had to be at our best to beat Alan and part-timer Harry Leitch in the doubles semi-finals. I am sure it will be the same for Scotland next week in Birmingham, with chef Douglas Kempsell determined to produce some tasty squash alongside his team-mates.

India, too, always peak for the Commonwealth Games and their doubles pairings of Saurav Ghosal and Dipika Pallikal Karthik, and Joshna Chinappa and Dipika, will be keen to add another gold medal to their tally after two silvers in Gold Coast.

Dipika and Joshna played very superbly to beat Laura Massaro and Jenny Duncalf in the 2014 women’s doubles final, devising some intelligent tactics to make the most of the new court dimensions that were introduced for the doubles that year.

The game itself has evolved since squash was introduced to the Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.

When I played in Melbourne in 2006, I was ranked nine in the world and was seeded seven. Seven of the world top 10 were playing that year and it showed how Commonwealth countries dominated the world of squash.

Now, with Egypt the dominant nation, we see only two males in the world top 10 competing in Birmingham, Paul Coll (NZ) and Joel Makin (Wales), and three women, New Zealand’s Joelle King, and England’s Sarah-Jane Perry and Gina Kennedy.

The landscape of world squash is constantly changing but that does not mean that the Commonwealth Games is getting weaker.

James Willstrop and Daryl Selby are the senior members of this year’s England squad after teaming up in the doubles in 2014

Historically, every gold medal singles winner has been a world No.1, as we saw with James Willstrop’s victory over Paul Coll in Gold Coast.

You would think that it would be a natural succession to expect Coll to win in Birmingham but England will hope to have a say in that.

Four years ago Coll had not trodden the path deeply enough to claim the gold but now he will be facing different challenges as the No.1 seed. I remember when I hit No.1 in the world, and it was like an out of body experience as all these external thoughts took over.

In reality, it’s just a number next to your name and it will be interesting to see how he handles that pressure next week.

In the doubles there will be no pool stages this year with the competition being a straight knockout all the way through. That means there will be the potential for some upsets in the doubles.

I am sure that every England fan will be willing Sarah-Jane Perry to succeed in her home patch in the Midlands. If she wins the singles final, she will be the first Englishwoman to do so.

Jenny Duncalf (2010) and Laura Massaro (2014) came closest but both finished runner-up to the formidable Nicol David.

For all the players, they can look around the athletes’ village on Tuesday, soak it all in, be a tourist for a couple of days and then hit the reset button to get down to the business of winning medals for England.

The Opening Ceremony is on Thursday and the squash singles competitions begin on Friday.

For me, I have one very special event to look forward to. I have been invited to appear in a special Commonwealth Games edition of Question Of Sport.

I really enjoyed appearing on the programme during my playing days and never thought I would be invited back.

For now, though, my focus will be entirely on supporting this fantastic England squad of James Willstrop, Adrian Waller, Patrick Rooney, Daryl Selby, Declan James, Sarah-Jane Perry, Gina Kennedy, Alison Waters and Lucy Turmel.

Doubles delight with Adrian Grant, but what about that block in Glasgow!

Nick Matthew’s Commonwealth Games record

2006 (Melbourne):
Men’s Singles:
Reached SF (lost to Peter Nicol)
Lost Bronze Medal Play-Off to Lee Beachill
Men’s Doubles:
Partnering with James Willstrop, lost to Campbell Grayson and Martin Knight (NZ) in QF

2010 (New Delhi):
Men’s Singles:
Gold Medal, beating England team-mate James Willstrop in the final.
Men’s Doubles:
Gold Medal. Partnering with Adrian Grant, beat Stewart Boswell and David Palmer (Australia) in the final.

2014 (Glasgow):
Men’s Singles:
Gold Medal, beating England team-mate James Willstrop in the final.
Men’s Doubles:
Silver Medal. Partnering with Adrian Grant, lost to David Palmer and Cameron Pilley (Australia) in the final.

2018 (Gold Coast):
Men’s Singles:
Chasing a hat-trick of gold medals, top seed Nick suffered a surprise loss in QF to No.12 seed Nafiizwan Adnan (Malaysia), who went on to win bronze.




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