Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Nick Matthew: The pain game and mind games

Nick Matthew beats Borja Golan. Picture by Jordan Mansfield
Nick Matthew joins the standing ovation for Daryl Selby and Tom Richards. Picture by Jordan Mansfield


Daryl Selby dived full-length into the back right corner, chasing down a shot from Nick Matthew as the world champion advanced towards victory in the quarter-finals of the ISS Canary Wharf Squash Classic.
It was a perfect length from Matthew and a spectacular dive from Selby, more in desperation than hope, as he collided with the side wall and ended up with his legs in the air trying to stop his head from hitting the back wall.
Nick Matthew does that to people. Last year, his epic semi-final battle with James Willstrop ended with his 6ft 4in Yorkshire rival crumpled in a heap in the back left corner as he dived in vain to stop a winning shot that took Matthew to match ball after two hours and seven miutes of brutal combat.
Again, Matthew had produced a dying length, that time into the backhand corner, and Willstrop’s spectacular attempt to retrieve the ball was in vain as soon as he launched himself through the air.
The fact that he suffered an acute spasm in his right thigh made for a painful finish to the battle.
These two incidents clearly illustrate one very simple point: that if you want to beat Nick Matthew then it’s likely to hurt.  A lot.
Going through the pain barrier is such a familiar phrase in sport that it can sometimes sound trite, but squash players know differently. They know the truth. Because they’ve been there, done it, and got the bruises.
Hurting your opponents is what squash is all about, physically and psychologically.
It’s the primal core element of our game.
Physically, you can test your own and your opponent’s bodily resources to the limits. Psychologically, the confidence generated by success is a constant companion of winning players.
The opposite is true for the players who lose to them, time after time.
Daryl Selby entered their quarter-final full of hope after beating Matthew in the recent National Championships in Manchester.
Matthew knew that, and treated his opponent with the respect he deserved, despite his comments after the game that Selby was like a gnat. “You keep swatting him away but he keeps coming back for more.”
Willstrop must be wondering what kind of game plan he has to employ and execute to beat his Yorkshire rival. Their Head to Head series reveals a long, uninterrupted line of victories to Matthew.
Tonight, a resurgent Gregory Gaultier faces Matthew in the semi-finals at Canary Wharf.
It is a fascinating, compelling re-run of last year’s final, when Gaultier was unable to exploit any weaknesses Matthew may have felt following on from his marathon semi-final against Willstrop.
In the other half of the draw, Willstrop will be in the psychological ascendancy with an unbeaten career record against his opponent, Peter Barker.
After Barker had battled past Stewart Boswell in the quarter-finals,  clinching a dramatic tiebreak 17-15 in the fourth game after 88 minutes of ferocious combat, I interviewed him at courtside and somewhat brutally, I must admit, stated the fact that if he wishes to improve on his current ranking then he needs to start winning tournaments like this.
“Thanks for that, Thatch,” he replied. “But believe me, I don’t enter tournaments like this wanting to go home after the quarter-finals or semis, I want to win them. But there are six extremely talented, tremendous players ahead of me in the world rankings and to climb above them requires some massive results.”
I recall interviewing Thierry Lincou on a bitterly cold winter’s day in Times Square in New York during the Tournament of Champions at Grand Central Station in 2003.
He was due to play Jonathon Power in the quarter-finals and revealed that he had never betaen him before.
He admitted that it was a huge psychological barrier and one he needed to break to through to help him reach his short and long-term career goals.
Lincou was improving steadily and, one by one, was beating the guys ahead of him in the rankings. He had beaten most of them, apart from Power.
The Canadian had the game to chop you up and destroy your confidence in the process. He could sense a weakness and exploit it, time after time, especially when he held his shots and forced an opponent to guess where the ball was going before he played the ball.
You can probably guess the rest. Lincou fought back from two games down and achieved his first victory over Power.  He went on to reach the final but lost to Peter Nicol. That barrier had to wait another year or two before Lincou pushed his way through.
I wonder if Gaultier can follow his compatriot’s lead and knock down some of his own mental barriers this week.
After all, he held the world No.1 ranking spot 15 months ago but suffered an acute stress reaction to being there.
Matthew seems to thrive on the competition but had demons of his own to fight in the recent North American Open in Richmond. He managed to sweep those aside to beat Ramy Ashour in a superb final to maintain his hold on the No.1 spot in the rankings.
The next two days will, I am sure, produce three outstanding squash matches on the way to deciding this year’s Canary Wharf champion.
The outcome will be settled as much by the mind games as the squash games. And yes, it’s going to hurt.
Read Alan’s daily Tournament Blog at www.canarywharfsquash.com

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