SQUASH MAD EXCLUSIVE: By MIKE DALE
Former US Open champion Simon Parke is still a busy man on court
British legend Simon Parke may have retired from the PSA Tour seven years ago, but his renowned energy levels are not waning yet.
Still playing in seven leagues across the UK and Europe, he’s also coaching some of the country’s most promising juniors in his native Yorkshire.
SquashMad met up with ‘Parkie’ to reminisce about his early days as a pro and heard a few pearls of wisdom for his young protégés hoping to make that hazardous transition into the senior ranks.
Simon Parke decided at the age of 10 he wanted to become a professional squash player. Six years later, despite the concerns of his mother, his ambition was realised.
His dad Ian had driven him to 24 junior tournaments that year and he’d won them all. His mum Jan wanted him to do A levels, but his decision was final. He was ready to join the big boys.
Eventually Parke would go on to become British national champion, reach world No.3, win the US Open and World Team Championship twice, but his first professional tournament, aged 16, wasn’t quite as glittering.
“I remember travelling to Germany with David Campion and Peter Marshall. I got $8 prize money. It was so embarrassing. They actually handed me the cheque, can you believe that?” he remembers.
“They didn’t have qualifying then, so even a $3k event had a 128 draw. Imagine losing in the first round! You won such a tiny amount of points.”
The $8 cheque wasn’t Parke’s only humiliation during that first year as a somewhat naïve jet-setter.
“I still remember the name of the place now – Altdorf,” he says. “Bearing in mind this was way before the internet, I just opened up a world atlas and thought, ‘There it is!’
“I booked my flight to Altdorf in Switzerland , but the tournament was in Altdorf, Germany. Luckily I realised I’d made a mistake about a week before the trip.
“I had to get an extra flight from there to the right Altdorf. Everyone found it very funny.”
Parke’s great friends Campion and Marshall were just two of a clutch of stronger, slightly older players, including Australia’s Anthony Hill and Canadian Gary Waite, that all turned pro at the same time. Their presence didn’t exactly help Parke’s slow ascent in the rankings.
“I won a few matches but mostly it was lots of scratching around. It takes a year or two to actually do your apprenticeship and get to the point where you’re confident not just on the court but travelling alone, being in a different environment, different courts. It is hard to start with, but exciting.
“At 17, I went on my first trip alone to the States for five weeks for five satellite events. That was daunting. Obviously then I was ranked pretty low, so I was just trying to work my way up. I reached a few semis and one final. I was starting to get a few wins, which was what I was used to through the juniors.”
The following year, 1990, Parke won the World Junior Championships on his 18th birthday in Paderborn. Although this augmented his reputation internationally, he doesn’t feel this increased the pressure on him to make more of an impression on the main tour.
“Not at all. I put pressure on myself. In my mind, the person that I looked up to was Jahangir. His record was just outrageous. I thought, ‘I’ve got to try and emulate that’.
“Rather than thinking, ‘It would be a great achievement to win one British Open or one World Open,’ I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to win ten!’
Through the early 1990s, Parke’s climb up the hierarchy was more gradual than a young man with ambitions of ten British Open titles would have hoped. But a move to Nottingham in 1994 to train with the likes of Marshall, Alex Gough, Jason Nicolle and Adrian Stiff on a daily basis was the catalyst for rapid improvement.
Then came the bombshell news in December 1995 that he had testicular cancer. That he returned to the professional circuit just four months after successful chemotherapy is probably Parke’s most remarkable achievement.
The second half of the 90s were the most fruitful of the Yorkshireman’s career, culminating in his US Open victory in Boston in which he beat Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power. He retired in 2006.
Now 41, with only a hint of salt ‘n’ pepper in the hair to distinguish him from his peak years, Parke has been nurturing the potential next generation of pros at Chapel Allerton in Leeds since April 2012.
He only got into coaching via a casual offer from Mike Brown, manager of Heaton Squash Club in Bradford, for whom Parke was playing in the Super League in 2005. Contemplating moving back up north from Nottingham with his then girlfriend (now wife) anyway, Parke accepted.
Having since earned his UKCC qualifications at levels one, two and three, Parke now hopes he’s “got quite a bit better at it”.
“You ask any good 25-year-old player and they’ll all think they’d make great coaches. But they won’t,” asserts Parke. “There’s quite a lot of stuff in there you need to learn that you don’t realise, like how to point your point across.”
Having been coached by the legendary Malcolm Willstrop at Pontefract for many years, Parke admits that inevitably some of the great man’s methods endure in his own sessions.
“I don’t think there will ever be another Malcolm. He’s the Brian Clough of squash. But I do take things from his style of coaching.
“Without Malcolm even realising, I get tips from him; just listening to him, the way he puts things across. Malcolm does get discipline from people, and he moulds the younger ones into decent human beings. They’re a little bit scared of him, but you watch them and they’re so well behaved.”
“Sometimes I hear myself and think, ‘That would be what Malcolm would say’, or ‘That was a bit too strict’. But you do have to be a bit stricter than your normal personality, otherwise no-one would listen to you.”
Parke picks out Ben Merchant (former U13 No.3, just graduated to U15), Emma Campion (David’s niece, Yorkshire U17 No.4) and Halifax-based Daniel Bray (Yorkshire U17 No.5) as the pick of his elite crop at Chapel A.
As well as coaching, Parke is also player/managing the club’s PSL team and recently turned his hand to a bit of Harry Redknapp-style transfer ‘wheeler dealing’.
To steal the hyperbolic parlance of Sky Sports News transfer deadline day, he ‘swooped’ this summer to sign world No.14 Daryl Selby for Chapel A’s 2013/14 PSL line-up.
“I think having someone like Daryl should be pretty inspiring for everyone,” reckons Parke. “He’s a really good team player, not just a great bloke and a great player. He really pulls for the team.”
In addition to the PSL, Parke still plays in the Yorkshire League, Dutch League, Bundesliga, French League and has just been asked to play in the Durham and Cleveland League.
Midweek trips up the A1 may not quite match the glamour of playing at Wembley Conference Centre or Boston Symphony Hall in his heyday, but Parke might reflect that he’s still come a long way since he was handed that $8 cheque back in 1988.