Nick Matthew has got his work cut out in 2011, because even a Herculean effort might not surpass his achievements of 2010. Last year, Matthew won Commonwealth Gold and became the first Englishman to be crowned World Champion. Top that.
NICK MATTHEWTHE ESSENTIALS
Born: July 25, 1980, Sheffield
Turned professional: 1998
World ranking: 1
International honours: 2010 Commonwealth Games, Singles Gold & Doubles Gold, 2010 World Champion
And it wasn’t just ‘Gold’ in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi either, but a Gold double in singles and doubles, partnering Adrian Hunt. As if that was not sufficient, having temporarily occupied the world number-one ranking in the summer, Matthew’s victory in the World Open final on December 10 pushed him back up to the summit of the ranking just in time for Christmas.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think this would all happen to me,” claims Matthew, 30, who defeated fellow Yorkshireman and life-long rival James Willstrop in both the Commonwealth Games singles final, and in the World Open final in Saudi Arabia. “My achievements in 2010 have just been the culmination of many years of very hard work – all the little one per cent improvements finally adding up to make the difference. For players to reach number one in the world they usually do it before the age of 30, so I am particularly proud that I have stuck at it and kept believing I could finally achieve this.”
Going Biomimetic for 2011: “I will start playing the new Dunlop Biomimetic racket in the New Year. It looks fantastic and I am itching to get it in play. The new technology makes the racket quicker through the air, which suits my game, as I like to get a lot of head speed on my shots. The racket will be perfect for me.”
Out of Court
Three years ago, in January 2008, it looked as though right-handed Matthew’s best squash may have been played, when he was forced to take over eight months out of the game to recover from surgery on his right shoulder.
“It was a bizarre one,” recalls Matthew, “because at the time the injury was the low point of my career. I could not hit a squash ball for six months and it was the hardest challenge I have ever had to overcome. I had to wear a sling for the first four weeks after the operation, when the slightest movement of the shoulder was absolute agony, and then after about three months of resting my arm, I had that embarrassing moment when I was just about able to lift a 1kg dumbbell. The progress was painful and slow and it was a very frustrating time.
“But it gave me a chance to take a step away from the game and I made sure I got myself into fantastic shape. It ended up that the biggest negative in my career became the biggest positive, as I came back to the game re-focused and with a new lease of energy.”
A strong season for Matthew in 2009, was followed up by finding the best form of his career last year, apart from a slow start in the Commonwealth Games in October.
“My preparations were unusual,” says Matthew, for whom the Commonwealths were critical, bearing in mind that the IOC has snubbed squash for the 2012 Olympics. “I had food poisoning before we went to Delhi, and I only started training again five days before we left. The first couple of rounds were a bit difficult – I dropped a game in both the first and second rounds – and I was not at my best, but once I had got through those rounds I got better by the day. In hindsight, my illness was a bit of a blessing in disguise and it helped lessen the pressure on myself. My form built up gradually and it worked out amazingly well in the end.”
Success for Matthew in Delhi and Saudi Arabia meant heartbreak for world number four Willstrop, 27, who has lost 16 of the last 24 matches in this epic local rivalry played out on the world’s most prestigious courts.
“I first played James in Telford when I was 11 and he was 8, and he beat me,” remembers Matthew. “I am sure I have played him over 100 times since. We have both had our highs and lows and even though we have never really trained together, we have always pushed each other to improve. We have got quite different training methods but I suspect we have had a positive affect on each other’s careers.
“James is a very attack-minded player – a shot player. He has got fantastic reach, and it is amazing that he is so athletic with a big, 6’4” frame. We are both pretty gutsy and determined, so we have had some tough battles over the years.”
But has the rivalry spilt over on occasion?
“What goes on court stays on court,” responds Matthew. “It is not that we don’t get along, but we have a very healthy rivalry and we have a lot of respect for each other. Hopefully it is good for the game, and if it creates more interest in our sport then I am all for that.”
Willstrop, being three years younger than Matthew, might have a greater share of his prime ahead of him, although Matthew is determined to keep his career momentum going. It is a great shame this rivalry will not feature in the 2012 Olympics, and Matthew describes the omission of squash as “the biggest disappointment of my career – a massive blow”. But forget London in 2012, Matthew is already targeting the next Commonwealth Games in 2014. No doubt Willstrop is too.