James Willstrop – Twenty Years of Canary Wharf
“If I’m diving around like that when I’m 35 will someone please shoot me!”
JAMES WILLSTROP INTERVIEW: Now 39, our first Canary Wharf champion in 2004 is back in action in the 20th anniversary tournament
INTERVIEW BY ALAN THATCHER
James Willstrop has enjoyed a love affair with the Canary Wharf Classic throughout the whole of his adult career.
He won the very first tournament back in 2004, beating Frenchman Thierry Lincou in a best-of-seven final, and went on to claim another three titles.
On Sunday, as we launch our 20th anniversary edition, James will be back again to compete against France’s Gregoire Marche in front of a packed crowd at one of his favourite squash venues, Canary Wharf’s stunning East Wintergarden.
Well, here we are in 2023, and the 39-year-old Willstrop is still putting his body on the line in one of the most physically demanding sports.
The Yorkshireman has missed only one edition in the tournament’s history and enters the draw in 2023 as the wild card, facing France’s Gregoire Marche in the first round.
As we looked ahead to the 20th anniversary of that opening tournament, James told me:
“I have so many wonderful memories of playing at Canary Wharf down the years, and that first year was very special.
“I remember it being a trial event, non-PSA, with PAR scoring to nine and a final that was best of seven games. I remember it being very exciting. I was a different person back then, a 20-year-old who was very excited to be playing in this new event.
“What has made it so special is that it has been run by four people deeply involved in the game.
“The East Wintergarden venue has also made for some wonderful times and it still feels the same now.
“Creating or finding a perfect venue is not easy, and Canary Wharf combines a brilliant atmosphere with intimacy.
“With a big arena you can sometimes dilute the atmosphere and the logistics can be more complicated.
“Those early tournaments were massive for me because I was surrounded by all those squash legends I had grown up idolising.
“As for that 2007 final against John White, people still mention it and fans are still watching it on YouTube and Instagram.
“That week was a brilliant time for John. He was such a phenomenal player to watch and beating him in the final was a very special moment for me. Yes, 35 seemed ancient back then but players are improving their longevity nowadays and we are seeing guys like Mohamed ElShorbagy, Tarek Momen, Miguel Rodriguez and Saurav Ghosal all proving they can compete well into their 30s and are still pushing the players at the top levels.
“Mentally it’s a big thing because you have all these years of experience and for me, when it comes to training, I don’t do the gruelling sessions any more.”
Father-of-two Willstrop added: “Also, the older you get you develop a wider perspective on life and that squash is not the only thing to focus on. Winning or losing is not as important as it once was.
“You become more rounded as a person and there’s lots to do in life rather than put yourself through that painful training every day. You also realise that your family is what really matters.
“I am still feeling all right but don’t train enough to hurt the body; it’s more low-impact stuff. I know I can’t go through that any more and would rather have a healthy body and keep playing.
“Most of my time on court now is spent coaching and I guess you could describe me as a coach who is still playing! I still have moments where I think I can still push it.”
Willstrop has followed his father Malcolm in taking over the coaching mantle at Pontefract.
“I did not ask for the coaching job but after Malcolm passed away it was something I moved into. I knew Malcolm’s systems more than anyone and I felt it was the right thing to do to keep everything he had built at Pontefract going.”
At Canary Wharf Willstrop could well be playing and coaching on the same day when he keeps an eye on Patrick Rooney, who has been drawn against Joel Makin in the first round.
“Patrick joins in at Pontefract whenever he’s around and David Campion and I are pleased to help him achieve what he’s capable of.
“On day one at Canary Wharf I imagine David will be there in Patrick’s corner, but I am there for Patrick if he needs me.
“He played well to beat Joel in the Edinburgh final recently and he is a very exciting prospect with a good all-round game. He is looking more complete every week and every month.
“At that level there is a huge mental process and part of that is to work out to convert losses into wins, and to be convinced that with his racket skills and athleticism he can compete with anyone.
“His style of play is a great antidote to all the rubbish that is going on in the game right now.
“Patrick’s honest approach personifies Malcolm’s ethos about squash. He works hard with humility and I am keen to help him keep that going. And as long as he wants to play I’m happy to help him.”
He beat Cameron Pilley in 2008 and his last title was against England team-mate Peter Barker in 2013. He was runner-up to David Palmer in 2009 and lost out to his great rival Nick Matthew in 2012 and 2014.
However, Willstrop’s semi-final battle against Matthew in 2010 is popularly regarded as the finest match in the history of Canary Wharf, a contest that lasted for 127 minutes before Willstrop was forced to concede on match ball down at 10-8 in the fifth after collapsing with cramp in the back left corner.
It was an epic contest that featured a third-game tiebreak that Willstrop won 20-18. That put him ahead by two games to one after Matthew had taken the opener. Matthew then drew level by winning the fourth and closed in on the match as a drive into the back left corner forced Willstrop into the only dive I have ever seen him make in his career.
He landed in a heap on the floor and remained there for several minutes as he was struck by a painful attack of cramp in his left quad.
Matthew initially refused to accept victory, sportingly offering his opponent time to recover, but Willstrop was unable to continue after being helped to his feet.
“That was probably my longest match ever. The cramp was maybe 30 seconds of hell but then you are OK. It’s just your body letting you know that it’s had enough. That is what squash does to you.
“Rather than any negative feelings about the defeat, I remember Malcolm coming off court with me laughing and smiling. He was proud of me and how I played.
“There were so many special aspects of that match. Firstly, we were both playing high quality squash that was also tough as boots. But it was very sporting and respectful.
“Sharing that with Malc was a lovely moment, especially after all the work we had put in over the years. People can be critical but Malc saw that as a win.
“Nick and I both had treatment after the match and I was astounded at the feat of physicality from Nick to beat Gregory Gaultier in the final the next day.”
That semi-final, between England’s two most successful players, was the finest example of the rivalry between Willstrop and Matthew, and illustrated why Canary Wharf occupies a special place in the heart of both of these wonderful ambassadors for the sport.
Matthew went on to eclipse Willstrop’s four wins by lifting the Canary Wharf title six times between 2010 and 2017, and the three-times world champion shares Willstrop’s joy in visiting the tournament as a coach and spectator.
The social atmosphere that surrounds Canary Wharf is a special, magical ingredient. And Willstrop adds: “Every trip to Canary Wharf is special. The crowd love to have a drink upstairs in the VIP Bar and having a rowdy crowd is simply great. There is always a fantastic atmosphere and buzz, and especially when the Ponte crew come down for a day or two.
“Canary Wharf is like a family reunion every year, with some very special people running the show and usually the same volunteers doing the same thing year after year to make things run smoothly.
“That’s what makes it so special.”