My marathon match with James was like Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Reporter (article first appeared at the Wharf Online)
World squash champion Nick Matthew is looking forward to returning to Canary Wharf in March.
He completed a perfect year by regaining his place at the top of the world rankings. Matthew clinched his third world title in Manchester in November and followed that up by winning the Hong Kong Open last week.
His return to the top of the world rankings coincided with the launch of his autobiography, Sweating Blood. He devotes a large part of the book to the inside story of his ongoing rivalry with fellow Yorkshireman James Willstrop, the reigning Canary Wharf champion.
Matthew rates their marathon semi-final in 2011 as one of the five greatest matches in his career. Their titanic battle ended with Willstrop collapsing with cramp after more than two hours of brutal combat on court.
Matthew wrote: “This was the best-quality match James and I have ever played. It’s very rare to have two top players competing at their very best in the same match. We were throwing the kitchen sink at each other. It was like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.”
Matthew has enjoyed a long unbeaten run against Willstrop, a four-times Canary Wharf champion, but he felt this was the occasion when it might end.
He said: “I lost a massive third game 20-18 to go 2-1 down and in games. At the break I was ready to throw in the towel. I said to my coach, David Pearson ‘Maybe today’s the day he’s going to beat me’.
“But then I gave myself a metaphorical slap round the face and said ‘no way – it’s not going to be today’ in the very next breath.
“After two hours and seven minutes of the bitterest and most exhausting squash we have ever played, I was 9-8 up in the fifth game, just two points from victory.
“With James in the front right-hand corner of the court, I thrashed the ball as hard and low as I could down the backhand wall.
“James was so far out of position and he flung himself to the floor in a desperate attempt to reach the ball. His leg cramped up so badly in the process that he was forced to retire.
“I reckon my own legs had about 30 seconds left before they would have gone the same way. I think that match at Canary Wharf defined our career rivalry. There was no sledging, no shenanigans. It was totally clean.
“I needed five hours of treatment before I could play in the final the next day. My feet felt like they had broken glass in them, but somehow I recovered to beat Gregory Gaultier 3-1.”
Matthew beat Frenchman Gaultier 3-2 in another marathon 111-minute match to win his third world crown in Manchester in early November. The 33-year-old from Sheffield was back in London last week to receive an award from the Sports Journalists’ Association in a star-studded bash at the Tower of London.
Matthew said: “This is the icing on the cake after such a great year. I got married to Esme, I was inducted into the Sheffield Hall of Fame, I won the world title for a third time, and I’m back at number one in the New Year.”
Squash fans are certainly keen to see another Matthew-Willstrop battle at Canary Wharf in March with the 2014 Classic heading for another sell-out. Three months ahead of the event, every ticket has been sold for the final.
Pictures by Michael Catling and Steve Cubbins (SquashSite)