Mike Dale, writing for Squash Player, speaks to James Willstrop about fatherhood, theatre and his return to form following injury.
Life is treating James Willstrop very well at the moment. The brittle intensity of his 20s has softened, illness and injuries have abated, family life has given him new perspective and his squash career is enjoying a renaissance.
A lingering virus and a career-threatening hip injury saw the Yorkshireman’s ranking plummet to 24th – its lowest in 12 years – during the autumn of 2015. However, his gradual recovery since then has brought with it a new appreciation of being healthy and enjoying hitting a ball for a living.
Willstrop finished last season with an appearance in the final of the PSA Dubai World Series Finals and a return to World No.6. The Yorkshireman also started off this season by beating France’s World No.1 Gregory Gaultier in Nottingham to become European champion.
Away from the PSA World Tour, the responsibility of fatherhood to Logan (four) and Bram (seven months), the solidity of his relationship with long-term partner Vanessa Atkinson and his passion for amateur dramatics now act as a perfect counterweight to the physical and mental rigours of the PSA Tour.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy doing what I’m doing as I am now,” says the 34-year-old.
“I feel I’m more equipped now to play big matches than I’ve possibly ever been. The balance of training, the boys, Vanessa, acting and life just feels great at the moment.
“Playing superheroes with Logan at the end of a hard day’s training is the most important thing. You know what really matters and it helps you see squash for what it is, rather than matches you’ve won and lost, which is an incredibly tedious and tiring way to carry on. It’s a game in the end – a great one at that, but a game.
“Life has never been ‘all about squash’ for me, but thinking about it too much is never healthy and perhaps in the past the intensity was a bit too high for my personality.
“I have observed it recently in some of the young players. They’re like I used to be; it means too much to them. Sometimes reining back and giving yourself space to enjoy it, breathe and do other things is essential.”
Those “other things” include treading the boards, those of a theatre stage rather than a squash court. This summer he appeared in a production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue at Ilkley Playhouse and last year he won a ‘best actor’ award at the Wharfedale Festival of Theatre for his role in R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End.
“I just love drama and stories. I like studying people,” he explains.
“Anything that is intense, that evokes emotion and gives people dilemmas and obstacles to overcome, is intriguing to me.
“There are lots of parallels between being an actor and a sportsman. When you watch a great sporting occasion, it has a story, things pulling and pushing against each other, drama, highs and lows, with quiet and loud bits.
“A lot of the rituals are similar too; you have to put the work in, be disciplined, learn the lines, analyse, and then it all builds up to the performance. I love it and do it whenever I get the chance. It’s really helped with my general sense of contentedness.”
Willstrop is keen to thank surgeon Max Fehily and his trusted physio, Alison Rose, for his current rude health, and says witnessing the serious injuries suffered by Chris Simpson, Amanda Sobhy and Low Wee Wern last season has made him appreciate his mended body even more.
“You realise you are fallible and nothing is a given.
“The body has an expiration date and I'm just grateful now for every new month it gives to me. The recent success makes me feel very lucky to have been supported over the last few years. I couldn't have done what I did in Dubai and the other events without the support of Alison and her team in Leeds.”
What appeared to be a key landmark in Willstrop’s recovery last season was his victory over Nick Matthew at the Tournament of Champions in January. Under the spectacular chandeliers of Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall in New York, he ended a ten-year losing streak against his nemesis on the PSA Tour, a run that encompassed 19 consecutive defeats.
“I think a little bit deeper than that nowadays. It’s not about winning and losing; that mentality just isn’t there now.
“When I beat him, I had Paul Coll to play the next night, a match that was even more important. But all everyone wanted to talk about was the win over Nick.
“It’s just not all about him. Beating Nick is not what I’m waking up to achieve. It’s about ‘Have I given my best?’ and ‘Am I healthy?’ If I’d have played well, entertained the Grand Central crowd and lost that match, it would have been fine.
“I realise and understand why it captures people’s imagination – the needle, the rivalry, the closeness of where we live and come from. We need more of all that stuff. He’s been a great champion and I’ve genuinely enjoyed those intense occasions with him.”
Willstrop has three years on 37-year-old Matthew – who is due to retire at the end of this season – and with his fresh mentality Willstrop could be the man to spearhead English squash for several years to come.
The full interview with James Willstrop can be found in Squash Player