The ever-engaging James Willstrop gives Squash Player magazine's Mike Dale the inside story of his intense and glorious experience at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
James Willstrop admits he still hasn’t processed or recovered from the “extreme levels of intensity and stimulation” involved in winning Commonwealth Games gold at his fourth attempt.
It is the eve of the British Open when we catch up to reflect on his Gold Coast experience. Five weeks have elapsed since he beat New Zealand’s Paul Coll in the final, yet still the Yorkshireman has not come to terms with his achievement.
On his return home, Willstrop contracted a virus and missed a special celebration evening that had been organised for him at Pontefract Squash Club. He then flew to Poland for the European Team Championships, trained, did an exhibition night, then left for Hull still in something of a daze.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to sit down and digest it,” he says. “It’s perhaps not surprising I got ill after getting back, because at the Commonwealth Games you’re just on this high.
“I can hardly explain it – it’s an incredible thing really. Your mind is on absolute overload and it builds up through the rounds. By the quarter-finals and semi-finals you’re on a higher and higher level of concentration and mental intensity, and between matches you’re completely unable to come down. I couldn’t do anything to relax, even watching a film or reading a book.
“Your heart and pulse are racing. It’s probably not all that healthy really. It gives you a massive buzz, but it also creates these very strange times back in your hotel room, trying and failing to deal with the exhaustion, just lying there. It’s something I find quite fascinating, how athletes deal with that.”
It wasn’t only Willstrop struggling with the emotion of it all. After his 11-9 11-4 11-6 win over Coll – a glorious performance of effortless fluency and unerring accuracy – his burly manager, Mick Todd, was caught on worldwide TV sobbing as he clutched Willstrop in a smothering bearhug.
Willstrop (right) after his win over Paul Coll (left) in the Commonwealth Games men's singles final
“How pathetic was that?” chuckles the former World No.1. “Mick loves to tell everyone he’s a tough Yorkshire ex-coalminer. To have him on TV crying was very satisfying.”
It all began with a straightforward win over Pakistan’s Farham Zaman in the second round, but he “wasn’t pleased or inspired” by his performance in the 3/1 victory over New Zealand’s Campbell Grayson in the last 16.
The 3-2, 95-minute quarter-final success against Australian Cameron Pilley was a “killer”, after which Willstrop thought to himself: “Well, that’s probably it now!”
“Doubtful” about how he would hold up physically in the semi-final against Malaysia’s Nafiizwan Adnan, it was in fact a straight-games affair, lasting only 49 minutes. “It was truly only then that I contemplated what was happening and that I had a real chance of winning a gold medal,” he reveals. “I was just so stuck in the moment on each day. It’s probably what helped me to win.”
And what a win. After a tense moment at 9-9 in the first, he simply outclassed Coll. “Putting a performance like that together is the sort of thing you fantasise about,” he says.
“You spend your life practising the same shots over and over, thinking of ways to improve yourself, pushing through sessions when you don’t really want to, but that final makes you think, ‘that’s what it was all for’.
“I couldn’t have asked for the ball to flow off my racket any better. It’s down to the hard work on court, repeating routines and patterns of play, learning, losing and learning again. When it culminates in a big occasion like that, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Having finished with silver medals at Melbourne, Delhi and Glasgow – not to mention defeats in one World Championship and three British Open finals – his Gold Coast gold may look to outsiders like a form of ‘closure’ for the 34-year-old.
However, he reveals: “I don’t subscribe to all that at all. I’ve heard people describe me as a ‘nearly man’. I don’t want to whinge, but if winning the Tournament of Champions or getting to World No.1 is being a ‘nearly man’, well, that’s for other people to decide.
“People can push that storyline, but that is not my psychology and certainly wasn’t how I was thinking going into the event. I think some athletes work that way, thinking ‘this is the one I want, this is my time’, but for me it’s just not like that. I worked hard and on the day I did it. Really, I’m just happy to still be playing the game.”