World's top two squash players James Willstrop and Nick Matthew begin British Open bid

 

James Willstrop is in the form of his life; Nick Matthew is defending champion and aiming for a third title.

The world's top two players begin their British Open bid at the 02 in London today and recent history suggests that one of these two Yorkshiremen will be in the final come Sunday.

British squash has never had it so good. Yet the sport continues to be shunned by the International Olympic Committee and will play no part at London 2012. That's a shame as far as medals go: the last time either Willstrop or Matthew failed to make a World Series final came 13 tournaments ago in November 2010.

The pair have been drawn apart at the British Open, which returns to the capital for the first time since Jahangir and Jansher Khan dominated the event up until the mid Nineties.

Willstrop, who lost to Matthew in an energy-sapping two-hour British Open final in 2009, is top seed for the first time. His rise to world No 1 also makes a mockery of how he felt in February last year when the 28-year-old came close to quitting the sport.

In a new book - Shot and a Ghost, which charts a “brutal” year on the world circuit and written by the player himself - Willstrop admits he was “too far gone” after constant travelling.

After an early exit at the British National Championships, he writes: “I have lost the love of playing that I had as a child. Every match is preceded by build-up and tension, constant thinking and dissecting.

”The heart races in anticipation and I spend hours wasting energy dealing with nerves. It's taken its toll.“

Now, on the eve of the sport's oldest tournament, he is in fine fettle. ”It has been fairly incredible,“ said Willstrop, who has reached the last seven world tour finals in a row, winning four of them. ”It also looks good with two English players, let alone Yorkshire, at the top.

“Nick and I have already played a lot of finals and it feels like it could be a year where we do the same again. It is a great challenge and an exciting one too.”

Willstrop, though, will have to cope with Egypt's Ramy Ashour in the top half of the draw. Regarded as the finest racket player of his generation, Ashour is fresh from a hamstring injury and seeded to meet Willstrop in the semi-finals.

Meanwhile, Matthew, the double world champion, will become the first Englishman to win three titles in the tournament's 83-year history with another victory.

“The manner in which I won in 2009, after my shoulder surgery in 2008, was memorable and I would dearly love to get my hands on the trophy,” said the 31-year-old. “All of this year's training has been building up to this event.”

'Shot and a Ghost: a year in the brutal world of professional squash' is available from www.willstrop.co.uk, priced £9.99.

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