Last autumn life seemed pretty good for Peter Marshall and Simon Parke, Britain's top two squash players, who both live in Nottingham, and who have known and played against each other since they were both small boys.
Marshall, the world's No 2, was gunning hard for Jansher Khan, the man who has dominated world squash for the past ten years, while Parke, at 23, two years younger than his friend, had risen to fifth in the world, and also had his sights on becoming the very best.
Then both were stopped in their tracks by circumstances neither could possibly have foreseen. Marshall was hit first with what was later diagnosed to be chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating virus which removed most of his fitness, leaving him permanently tired and with swollen glands.
"I lost a couple of matches to people who, normally, I would easily beat," he recalls. "That's when I knew something was wrong. After undergoing blood tests I discovered my condition. I instantly knew that I would be out for a long time. It was very hard to take, especially as I really fancied my chances of reaching the top spot this year."
His friend, Parke, suddenly lost a training partner at the Nottingham Squash Club, but carried on enjoying huge success himself, notably as part of the World Team Cup-winning England team, and also winning the Malaysian Open.
It was in December that he first noticed that his right testicle was both bigger and harder. It began to bother him in his last tournament, in Bombay, and on his return had it checked out.
"The day after Boxing Day I was told that I had a cancerous growth," Parke says. "Before I had time to dwell on the news the neurologist assured me that 95 per cent of sufferers recover, but it was still obviously bad news to receive. The testicle was removed on New Year's Day but then I had to undergo chemotherapy.
"That was the worst period because I'd been expecting radiotherapy, which is easier to handle. Then I was told that I might never be as fit again which meant, in other words, that my career could have been over."
It was in the following weeks that the two squash players began to turn to each other, realising, more than anyone else, what each other was going through.
"We spoke every day, and normally our conversations were either positive and jokey, or very philosophical. We didn't need to go into detail because we understood each other's difficulties. This had started before I fell ill, when we just spoke about Peter's problems, but it obviously gathered pace once I contracted cancer. Peter's friendship and encouragement has certainly played its part in my recovery."
Marshall, too, has benefited from Parke's understanding. "I was shocked when Simon first told me his news," he admits. "Like everyone else, I feared the worst. I went to see him a few times in hospital, and the experience made me look a lot harder at my own condition.
"In a funny kind of way it made me feel lucky that I 'only' had chronic fatigue syndrome. It made my problems appear a lot smaller, and it definitely helped me handle them better."
The current diagnosis is, thankfully, a great deal better. Although not recovered yet, Marshall feels well on the mend and hopes to be back in time for November's World Open in Karachi, before mounting a challenge to return to his former second ranking, and possibly beyond.
Parke, meanwhile, has been given a clean, if cautionary, bill of health, and plays in the Hong Kong Open, the first major tournament of the squash season, starting on 27 August.
But has the last few months changed anything? "It's made me a lot more relaxed," Parke said. "Sometimes I wonder what might have happened to me if it was 30 years ago, and that's why it is pretty easy to put things in perspective."
Marshall agrees. "It reminds you just how you enjoy your sport, and how you must make the most of your chance. We're both going to return more relaxed, but also more determined than ever to become the best in the world. We'll both be better for our experiences."
Even if that means beating each other? "We don't like losing to each other," they seem to say in unison. "But we're the best of friends an hour after the game again, and that's what really counts."Reuse content