There’s no love lost as Matthew and Willstrop racket up their rivalry

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Rivalries are the spice of sporting life. In boxing you can go back to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (and the ever-warring post-war promoters Jack Solomons and Harry Levene) via golf’s Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, tennis’ Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, plus Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, snooker’s Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, decathlon’s Daley Thompson and Jürgen Hingsen, triathlon’s battling Brownlees, Alistair and Jonathan, not forgetting surely the track’s most iconic double act of all, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.

Now there is another British duelling duo who, if they were in a higher-profile sport, would be regularly commanding the back pages. Squash stars Nick Matthew and James Willstrop are both gritty Yorkshiremen with a long-running racket rivalry as bitter and intense as that of Coe and Ovett. Like the Brownlee brothers they are remarkable in our national sport as respectively the world numbers one and two, yet live within a few miles of each other, Matthew in Sheffield and Willstrop further up the M1 in Leeds. However there is little neighbourliness in their frequent title-swapping confrontations in pulsating, combative and sometimes argumentative finals.

Unlike Coe and Ovett, who cannily kept their distance until the seismic Olympic collisions of the eighties, they have faced each other over 40 times at domestic, Commonwealth and world level. Matthew (pictured left), who became the first Englishman to win the World Open Squash men’s title in December 2010, subsequently topped the world rankings throughout 2011 before Willstrop (right) replaced him in January but he later reclaimed pole position in the first-ever final of the PSA World Series Tournament of Champions at Grand Central Station in New York.

He currently boasts a 32-9 record over Willstrop and is enjoying an unbeaten streak of 19 wins since December 2007. Interestingly, the last time Willstrop beat him was in Matthew’s home city of Sheffield. But 31-year-old Matthew has already beaten Willstrop twice this year – in the Tournament of Champions final in January, and the British National Championship final in February.

Next week squash’s biggest hitters clash yet again in the Canary Wharf Classic at the East Wintergarden in London’s Docklands, starting on Monday, an event designed to help showcase the sport’s attempt to gain long-overdue Olympic recognition in 2020.

It is a bid of which I wrote supportively here recently for in my view squash – which personally I have never played and rarely covered – embraces worthier Olympic commodities than other ball games now included like big brother tennis, football and now golf, which makes its debut at Rio 2016.

When squash made its last presentation to the International Olympic Committee in 2009, it was out-manoeuvred by an appearance from Tiger Woods (pictured). It is hoping for better luck and a shrewder strategy this time, with a little help from Matthew, who is one of the bid ambassadors.

He told insidethegames: “Last time the IOC went for the commercial option but squash can now claim to be truly global. To get into the Olympics would be the pinnacle for the sport. I think we tick a lot of boxes. There is the health aspect – it keeps you really fit – and the youthful and global nature of it. We have all the traditional Olympic ideals and many of the modern ones too. The sport has also become more televisual.”

Few British sports figures deserve such acclaim as Matthew. Here is Andy Murray without the scowl, one who actually wins major tournaments. In a mainstream sport he would he lauded as a British superstar and while he enjoys his niche status he admits: “If we had the sort of profile of the tennis guys we would be over the moon.”

Three years ago he had such major surgery on his right shoulder that he could barely lift his racket for weeks after the operation. He could easily have walked away from the game. “It was the worst thing that happened to me and the best thing,” he says now. “It gave me a chance to step away from the game and see what I was doing wrong. I had been up to number five in the world, and had beaten the big players, but I wasn’t doing it regularly.

“Basically I was relying on my stamina too much, which meant that when I got to the finals of tournaments I was short of energy. Squash has been described as a cross between chess and boxing, and I was using a lot of boxing and not enough chess. I had to sharpen up mentally and technically and learn to finish the points more quickly.”

Matthew has been a professional since he was 18. “There was an option to go to university but I was determined to make a go of squash and I’ve never looked back really.

“I got into squash through tennis because the local club I attended had squash courts as well. My dad had played a bit of squash and I liked the one on one nature of the sport and the competitive element.

“It makes you think for yourself and there seems to be a million and one areas that you can work on and get better. I did play a lot of team sports as well but squash seemed to suit my personality.

“It got to the point where I knocked the football on the head because it interfered with my squash tournaments. But it wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I realised you could play it professionally and it dawned on me that I might be good enough to have a career in it.

“At a lot of tournaments now we get relatively good crowds, often playing in front of a few thousand people. Last year the British Nationals in Manchester was packed out. Around the 360 degrees of the court you can get a great atmosphere.

“These days we tend to take the game to the people, even playing in shopping malls and great locations like the Pyramids in Egypt and Grand Central Station. This year’s British Open will be at the O2.”

So how did the rivalry with Willstrop develop? “He was the golden boy of British squash, coming up through the juniors and a former world junior champion, and number two in the world seniors by the time he was 21 or 22. I developed a little bit later. We are very different characters and we had a very tempestuous British final.

“Our relationship has never been that strong, we have never been the best of friends and it’s a healthy rivalry and it’s good for the game (sounds even more like Coe and Ovett). We’ll always congratulate each other but we don’t socialise, go out for dinner, anything like that, even though we play in the same England team. We have both got friends we are much closer to.”

Sheffield, which terms itself the City of Sport, has produced great sporting names – Coe, Naseem Hamed, John and Sheila Sherwood and now Jessica Ennis. Says Matthew, whose girlfriend is, Esme Taylor, a physiologist with the British cycling team: “I’ve always been amazingly well supported here and I’ve been fortunate enough that I have never really had to move from home. I think Jessica is in a similar situation. She could have moved to Loughborough or London but she dug her heels in and said, ‘I’ve got fantastic facilities here.’ And she is right.

“The EIS (English Institute of Sport) is brilliant. I think I am the same really. I have got a court in the city named after me and my picture is on the wall at the EIS along with Jessica’s and many others like Shelley Rudman, the Olympic bob skeleton silver medallist who now lives and trains here. In fact she lives just down the road from me.

“We have a great tradition of squash in this country dating back to Jonah Barrington and the future looks quite rosy at the moment with a bunch of more than a dozen young players on the verge of the top hundred in the world, which is good because myself and James won’t be around forever.

“Of course, if squash does become an Olympic sport in 2020, it will probably be a bit late for James and me, so it’s good to have a sort of conveyer belt. I’ll be 39 then (and the 6ft 4in, four inches taller and three years younger Willstrop 36).

“Historically it’s always been a sport when you peak in your mid to late twenties.

“I got to world number one for the first time just before I was 30, so I was quite a late developer but to be playing at the top level in 2020, when we hope to get into the Olympics, would be pushing it a bit.

“If I can play some sort of role on the TV side of things then that would be great, but the short term is getting the sport in there. The big one this year for us is the British Open, which is our Wimbledon, and we are hoping this will really put the focus on the bid.”

I’ll drink to that. And with Matthew and Willstrop racketing up their rivalry, make that a double.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title from Atlanta to Zaire

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