Squash: Brits a hit on court but not with each other

 

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It's the season of autobiographies and backlashes, and squash is no different. For the past five years the Yorkshire pair of Nick Matthew and James Willstrop have been Britain's top two players. In that time both have claimed the world No 1 spot in the face of Egyptian domination, while Matthew has won the world title twice in the past three years.

However, all is not rosy. On the eve of the World Championships in Manchester, Matthew has reignited a fractious relationship between the pair, which first came to a head at the British Open final in 2009.

During a two-hour tussle, Willstrop held match balls before going down in the decider. Afterwards, Willstrop, known for his gentlemanly conduct, called Matthew "disrespectful" and the pair refused to speak each other.

Last year, Willstrop published his semi-autobiographical account of a year in the life on tour. Shot and a Ghost was published to widespread acclaim and shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. Not be outdone, Matthew, who is known to have reservations over Willstrop's Yorkshire credentials (he was born in Norfolk), releases his own autobiography tomorrow.

Matthew describes how the British Open final friction came from an unlikely source: the DJ Chris Evans, who was then presenting the Drivetime show on BBC Radio 2. The pair, bizarrely, were interviewed live barely an hour before their final began.

They were sitting next to each other, and Matthew recalls: "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."

The line stayed with Matthew. Down and out in the final, he "sledged" Willstrop for blocking, asking him if his father and coach, Malcolm, had taught him to play that way. At the end of the game, Matthew now admits that he "wanted to rip James's head off". The ploy worked. Willstrop lost the mental edge and Matthew won in five games.

The pair's rivalry stretches back to their junior days. But despite Willstrop becoming world junior champion, winning the World Championships has eluded the 30-year-old. He also hasn't beaten Matthew since 2007. This week Matthew is aiming to regain his world title after winning the first of back-to-back titles in Saudi Arabia in 2010, where he beat Willstrop. It was the first all-English encounter in the event's history.

There is one problem facing him: Ramy Ashour, Egypt's exceptional world No 1. He is on a 49-match winning run and was last defeated 18 months ago. His racket speed, reactions, springy legs and total control of all four corners have left rivals trailing and earned him the tag of "the greatest". "I've always been a believer of praise and criticism," Ashour said. "I have to enjoy the moment when something great is said about you."

Ashour has more than coped with curfews and the troubles back in Cairo too. In May he became the first Egyptian to win the British Open, the sport's oldest event, for 66 years.

Despite his unbeaten run, there has been one blip: his presentation to the International Olympic Committee fell on deaf ears in September as squash was denied a place at the Games for a third successive time.

Still, the World Championships will see a timely return of squash to the BBC.

"I want to show the squash world that you can be creative," added Ashour. "The more you love this game the more you have to try new things for yourself."

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