It’s all Chris Evans’s fault. It’s thanks to that notorious radio DJ that my relationship with James Willstrop is so acrimonious.
It all kicked off at the 2009 British Open in Manchester when James and I found ourselves squaring up to each other in the final. The media was quite rightly bigging up the match. After all, it was the first time since the 1930s that there were two Englishmen in the final. This was quite a deal.
As with all big deals in sport, the media needed to stoke the fire a bit. And who better to be prodding with a poker than controversial DJ Chris Evans?
A radio interview with Chris had been arranged for both James and me simultaneously. It was a bizarre situation. We were sitting together less than a metre apart in the Manchester HQ of England Squash, with headphones on, chatting live on Chris’s Radio 2 drive time show barely an hour before the biggest match of our lives.
And Chris was trying to find out just how acrimonious the rivalry between us really was.
James told him that we got on fine, that we occasionally shared a hotel room or practised together, but that we didn’t exactly share a dinner table. He explained that we were friendly work colleagues rather than best mates, which was completely true… at the time.
Then Chris asked if we ever indulged in a bit of cricket-style sledging on the court. James, probably half seriously and half-jokingly, said: “Yeah, Nick likes to have a word on court from time to time”. And he was correct. I do like to mutter the odd word now and then. I wouldn’t exactly call it sledging but I’m sure it can be slightly off-putting for some players. James pretty much admitted this to Chris.
Anyway, fast forward an hour or so and James and I were on court contesting the final. It was a vicious battle, as it often is between us, and after three games James was outplaying me. He was very much on top. The match was slipping away from me and I desperately needed to change the momentum of play in my favour.
There was some really ugly squash coming out of me. I just couldn’t control my emotions. I remember arguing with the ref, trying to drum up some sort of animalistic anger inside myself. I was playing flat as a pancake – not surprising when you consider the traumatic week I’d just endured.
Just 72 hours earlier, my infamous back injury had been so serious and so painful that I’d actually packed my bags in readiness to go home. It was during my second round match against Cameron Pilley that my back degenerated into one of its vicious spasms. These are often so bad that 10 minutes later I’m not even able to tie my shoelaces. On this occasion adrenalin somehow carried me through the match. However, when I woke up the following morning my whole body was so misaligned, so twisted up that, when I tried to stand up straight, my right nipple was a good three or four inches below my left. It turned out I had a bulging disc in my spine that had inflamed massively, causing the rest of my body to contort in compensation. There was no way I could play.
Before my quarter-final against Daryl Selby I had eight hours of physio treatment, passed from one therapist to another, like a lame horse, in a desperate attempt to make it to the court. My plan was just to walk on court, play a couple of rallies, and concede the match to Daryl. That would have been the honourable thing to do.
Somehow, though, I managed to complete the entire match. To this day I don’t know how on earth I managed it. My back was a ticking time bomb and I kept waiting for it to explode at any point. Knowing that every rally might be my last, I was so tense. Bizarrely, I played better in spite of this physical threat hanging over me. I couldn’t move properly so, ironically, the quality of my squash increased dramatically. Instead of competing at a reckless pace – as I’m sometimes wont to do – I kept control of my tempo and accuracy. It was all out of pure desperation but it worked. This was a valuable lesson I would remember for the rest of my career.
After that match against Daryl I was an emotional and physical wreck. Warming down on the outdoor running track outside the tournament venue, I broke down in tears. There were still two more matches to go. There was surely no way my back could hold out that long. Yet somewhere deep down I had this feeling I was now going to win the British Open.
I carried my great form into the semi-final against Peter Barker, beating him too. In many ways that match was even tougher since Pete had been sharing a room with me all week and was intimate with every tiny detail of my back injury.
So there I was in the final, up against James. The atmosphere inside the National Squash Centre was a bear pit, with James’s fans from Pontefract on one side of the seating and my fans from Hallamshire on the other. James’s dad Malcolm was encouraging his Pontefract boys to make more noise. There was perhaps a bit of squash politics at play here, too. For a while James and I had shared the same manager, Paul Walters, who also happened to be promoter of this tournament. Just a few weeks before the British Open, James had fallen out with Paul and ceased working with him. It seemed as if Malcolm was now desperate for his son not only to win the British Open but also to get one over on Paul in the process. The way the match was going, he was getting his wish. I was going down fast.
Suddenly I remembered our radio interview with Chris Evans and how James had suggested he was vulnerable to a bit of sledging. Chris had planted the seed in my mind that sledging might be an effective extra weapon against James. It wasn’t a conscious thing for me but, because the interview had taken place so recently, the idea must have been there at the back of my mind. I perhaps subconsciously knew it was a ploy I could fall back on when things got tough.
Well, it just so happened that the match was getting very tough indeed. At one point James appeared to be intentionally blocking me from reaching certain shots. He is very tall for a squash player – 6ft 4ins – with an incredibly wide wingspan, not to mention his size 13 feet. When you combine this with the fact that my biggest strength is my volleying, it means that accidental collisions around the middle of the court are inevitable. Prior to this match, James had not long recovered from an ankle injury and I thought this might explain why he was slower than usual to clear a path away from the ball. I also thought it might be a deliberate ploy to break up the play. All players, including myself, have been known to do it. It’s still exceedingly frustrating, though. I was even more surprised since James’s dad (and coach) Malcolm had always banged on about the virtues of fair play. This might explain why, the next time James blocked me from reaching a shot, I turned to him and said without thinking: “Did your dad teach you how to do that?”
I probably said it a bit louder than I should have. I certainly made sure his dad, who was sitting in the front row, could hear it. It was one of those occasions when you think something and, before you know it, you have vocalised it out loud. This kind of thing happens to me a lot. It was hardly what you’d call subtle. But, in one fell swoop, it totally changed the entire course of the match.
It was the emotional kick up the arse I needed, and it put James on the back foot. I hadn’t meant him to take the comment personally but it was obvious he had.
It affected him more than I realised. Maybe he made the mistake of thinking about my comment rather than focusing on the match. Up until then he had been right in the zone, moving me around the court like a chess player in charge of his pawn. But suddenly he appeared rattled. The momentum had changed. I clawed back the fourth game to level the match and then we tussled for the deciding fifth. I was so angry in between games that at one point I remember thinking I wanted to rip James’s head off. And that’s not the kind of emotion that helps in squash. My playing had improved but the emotional rollercoaster I was on wasn’t helping me at all. It was all too hit and miss. Soon James was 10-8 up and a point away from victory.
The British Open, as a title, is probably only second to the World Open in terms of prestige. It certainly has more history than any other professional squash event. At the end of your career people always judge you on how many Worlds and how many British Opens you have won. I had already had my finest moment in squash, winning the British Open in 2006, and here I was a few points away from victory again, three years later. I remember thinking to myself how these opportunities don’t come around too often. I might never have another chance. Somehow I managed to rein in my emotion, finally playing with a bit of control. Suddenly my mission became clear.
I focused my mind, ridding myself of the demons that had been haunting me for most of the match. James may have been match point up – and I obviously had no margin for error – but I refused to go on the defensive. I decided to attack. I suppose at that point the match was his and I had nothing to lose. I remembered that, in the past, someone had once told me to “play every point like it was match point”. So I went high risk, played attacking squash, clawed back the deficit and eventually won the match, and the title, 12-10 in the fifth.
If you need any evidence of how much that tournament meant to both of us, and how emotionally drained we both were at the end, you just need to look at the video clips of those first few moments after my victory. I was flat on my back in the middle of the court, elated, yet totally and utterly spent. James was hiding in the front left corner, his head in his hands. I’m sure he wanted to dig a hole for himself then and there. It was his third defeat in a British Open final (he had lost to Anthony Ricketts in 2005 and had multiple match points in 2008 against David Palmer) and I totally understood just how gutted he must have been.
Bizarrely, the day after that final, there was virtually no coverage of the match on all the usual squash websites. There had been a falling out between the squash media and the promoter (remember that was my manager, Paul) prior to the event. The only proper match report I ever saw was on the website of the British squash magazine Squash Player. Unfortunately, the reporter was none other than Malcolm Willstrop, the dad whom I had, just the day before, sarcastically suggested might have taught James to block his opponents. Malcolm is a superb match analyst and has a track record as a brilliant coach. He is, however, without doubt, the most opinionated person in the entire sport. In his report he slagged me off mercilessly. Anyone who hadn’t seen the match would have assumed I was an utter villain. (Granted, I shouldn’t have mentioned James’s dad on court, but I was hardly a villain. It was a feisty match, that’s all.)
Don’t get me wrong. I really respect Malcolm Willstrop. He’s one of the most successful coaches in the sport and his club, Pontefract Squash & Leisure Club, is a veritable conveyor belt of talent. He has guided the likes of Gawain Briars, Lee Beachill and Vanessa Atkinson to the very top of our sport. Not to mention his own son. All great players.
Of course Malcolm was never going to write a balanced report on a highly emotionally charged match that his son had just lost. There’s too much conflict of interest at play. However, from then on the relationship between James and me has been pretty sour, to say the least.
Had James won that 2009 British Open final, I suspect Malcolm would have written a more tempered report and the whole episode would have been forgotten. What happens on court stays on court, to use a cliché.
Only James didn’t win. I did. And the whole Pontefract clan went ballistic. Four years on, they are still seething.