Monday, December 4, 2023

Willstrop: Retirement talk fuels my desire

Seasoned entertainers leave Willstrop envying a career spanning decades
By JAMES WILLSTROP – Article first published on the Yorkshire Evening Post website (14/01/14) 

Athletes are just about the only people who ever seem to receive minor verbal interrogation in respect of their life after sport.

And I often get that ghastly question: ‘What have you got to fall back on?’ There is perhaps an element of danger that people consider the life of a sportsman to be saddled with. But then isn’t all life a little dangerous? And if it isn’t then it is surely not worth bothering with.

Longevity in sport depends on many things. A life in the game of squash is delicate and liable to expire because of a limit on the physical capacities the body can retain over time. It isn’t viewed as a particularly secure existence. Unlike most jobs, at some stage the squash must end, and then what?

The life of a squash player is one that demands focus and huge amounts of dedication and it is quite difficult to really think of anything else. Being the best you can requires full throttle effort, which is probably why many of us get to 35 and don’t have a clue what to do next.

I arrived in New York on Saturday and, it being the city of endless possibilities, I was immediately thinking that at some point, unless I snuff it first, I must imagine a life that doesn’t involve playing squash, and more topically, the Tournament of Champions.

As the airport taxi glided over the bridge into that iconic concrete neon jungle, I rediscovered once again the familiar suggestion of anticipation.

I know that each re-visit is one closer to being the last, at least in a squash playing capacity. New York is a good city in which to indulge my passion for live theatre so I wasted little time in purchasing a standing room only ticket to see two stalwarts of English theatre, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.

I couldn’t help feeling envious that these two ‘elder statesman’ had been able to enjoy their career in ‘performance’ a lot longer than I will do mine.

Both over 70, they must be thrilled to still be able to entertain on the biggest stage. Having had the pleasure of (hopefully) entertaining an audience through my favourite form of expression, I can imagine that the absence of the big occasion through retirement will be difficult to accept.

Perhaps this is where I get my love of live performance from. Many squash players are similarly moved by live forms of artistic expression, because they are privy to those incredible highs themselves on court.

The parallels between artistic performance and sport are strong. The feeling when the lights come up or down, when an audience hush and the music dies or rises, is scintillating and addictive.

If I don’t find an alternative form of expression or performance later, for now I can feel happy that I can still involve myself in marvellous nights of squash, like last Tuesday’s Premier squash league match at Pontefract against Duffield. Pontefract lost 5-0, in front of a packed house.

I must also feel happy that I am not too old to be able to look forward to playing another event in New York’s Grand Central Terminal this January.

I have had some spectacular experiences here over the years. Win or lose, the interfusion of eager crowds and Grand Central atmospherics just cannot be surpassed, and at times is magical.

I have reached a couple of finals here, and won in 2010, a week I am especially pleased to recall. So, this is a time to enjoy then. And as for retirement? Hmm… if Broadway doesn’t come calling then I’ll take to the streets of Leeds.

In whatever guise that might be, let’s hope the highs of a performance are a part of the equation…

Source: Yorkshire Evening Post; Picture by Michael Catling

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