James’ view from the top of the world

Article by Kristi Maroc

As a child, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up it’s likely James Willstrop replied ‘a top international professional squash player’ while other children were saying astronauts, racecar drivers, ballerinas or Hollywood actors. Like many other responses, his answer may have seemed like an innocent and possibly farfetched dream to many…but to James and those close to him it was already something realistic to aspire towards.

“I remember really being very young, there was no question that I really wanted to play the game to a top level,” says 29-year old James.

“I had a lot of encouragement and had an environment where I was able to be very involved and exposed to the game. I was at squash clubs, and found I loved it. I got addicted very early on and never really looked back.”

James’ family is all heavily involved in squash. His father Malcolm Willstrop was, and still is his coach, along with his brother David who was also previously a professional player and is now part of England’s national coaching team.

“It’s been a great life in squash for me. I’ve been very very privileged to have that chance to be exposed as a young child to that environment. As it happened I enjoyed it, I may not have taken to it as I did, but my family were well involved and I followed them.”

Now at the pinnacle of squash achievement, with a world #1 professional ranking, all of James’ dreams have come true.

“I was always really exposed to professional squash. I came to watch the British Open when I was young, and was obsessed with it – I still am really.”

The difference now is that he is actually competing in the British Open, and other major World Series professional tournaments such as the El Gouna Open, Hong Kong Open, and the U.S. Open.

James has confirmed he will return to the United States in October to contest for the 2012 Delaware Investments U.S. Open title. In last year’s U.S. Open he lost in the semifinals to compatriot and known rival Nick Matthew, a result which he will no doubt be looking to amend this time.

He is also likely keen to retaliate from his most recent major tournament experience – at the 2012 British Open – where he was knocked out in the semifinals in front of a home crowd during a nail-biting hour-long match against Egyptian Ramy Ashour.

After the summer off to regroup and prepare for the first major tournament of the season, plus a taste for revenge on his lips, James is likely to turn up enthusiastic and raring to win the U.S. Open and substantiate his world #1 ranking.

“Motivation comes by easily because I love winning, I love the thrill of winning and competing to the very best of my ability, or giving the very best account of myself even if I don’t win. I just love striving for that,” he says.

According to James, the only road to success is hard work…there are no secret tips.

“As boring as it sounds, there aren’t really any shortcuts. Hard work is the key. And if you want to get better at things, practice is my biggest tip, it really is…hard work and training.

“There’s a lot of off-court training – gym work, core work, yoga, psychology – it’s all in there. The secret is literally hard work. Like anything, what you put in you’ll get out,” he says.

“My main target now is to just try to stay healthy and play the game and enjoy the experiences that might be left. That’s another thing that you learn when you get older, I think you get a lot of perspective and you understand that it doesn’t last forever.

“I’m really lucky to have played at some of the great venues around the world and win some brilliant tournaments, and I just want to try and enjoy that as well.”

The starring role that squash has played in James’ life means that now he is so successfully established in his career, he is enthusiastic about instilling his love of the game to junior players.

“I remember like it was yesterday when I was watching people play in these big venues and just being absolutely awestruck by them. They were my heroes, the players, at that time. So I suppose now when I’m stood in that position as the world number one, I try and steady myself and enjoy it.

“This time isn’t around forever, where you’re an elite athlete and at the top of your game, so I try to just think ‘let’s enjoy it, let’s try to put back into the game and encourage the kids and the fans to enjoy the sport’.