Willstrop looking forward to 21st Nationals Challenge
By Sam France
Two-time champion James Willstrop is looking forward to pitting himself against the best of the new generation at the AJ Bell British National Squash Championships in Nottingham from 14-17 February.
The former world no.1 won back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008, and has finished runner-up in four of the last six tournaments.
With Nick Matthew having retired, this year’s tournament is the most open in recent memory, and Willstrop is relishing the challenge.
“You’ve got all these English players coming through who I’m really excited about, as an older player who’s looking at what’s coming up for England Squash.
“Some of these players are becoming really strong, it’s pleased me as I know how hard they’re all working with the coaches, and with England Squash in particular putting the effort into them.
Previously held in Manchester, the championships are moving to their new home in Nottingham this year.
“It’s a positive thing with taking the event to a new part of the country where squash is thriving. Nottingham University is putting an awful lot of effort into the sport and squash is really benefiting,” he said.
“I recently played on the glasscourt there where I won the European Individual Championship. It’s nice and compact, and a good atmosphere.”
Having played in each edition of the tournament since 1999, Willstrop is well-versed in its significance.
“It has such a prestige associated with it, I’ve played it for so many years,” he said.
“So many great players in the world have won it because of the strength of the home nations over the years.
“It’s a big title to be British champion, it’s no mean feat.”
By Sam France
Former British champion Daryl Selby is looking forward to the challenge of holding off the new generation at the AJ Bell British National Squash Championships from 14-17 February, which he believes will be the most open tournament in years.
With ten-time winner Nick Matthew’s lengthy reign brought to an end by retirement, any number of players could be going to Nottingham fancying their chances of a win.
Selby, who won the tournament eight years ago, beating then-World#1 Matthew in the final, is itching to add a second national title to his collection.
“This year it’s a lot more interesting than it’s ever been. Nick’s retired and he’s been extremely dominant in the Nationals over the last decade, so it opens it up.
“I think now when you look at it, there’s a lot of players that could win.
“Any of the top eight seeds or even going down to ten, you could argue have a genuine case for winning which makes it the most interesting Nationals in years.”
Selby enjoyed a successful 2018, winning silver at the Commonwealth Games and a first PSA tour victory in two years in Qatar.
And while he is only two-and-a-half years younger than the retired Matthew, he isn’t thinking too hard about retirement just yet.
“Nick put a date on his and worked towards that and I can’t really do that because I still feel pretty good when I play.
“It’s something you always think about but while I’m still enjoying playing – which I definitely am – and while I’m still competing with the top guys and not letting my level drop too low, then I’ll just keep going as long as I can.
“You’re a long time retired and I enjoy competing and being on the other side of the table. Being one of the oldest guys and trying to keep the youngsters at bay is a good challenge in itself and I just love different challenges.
“It used to be me trying to beat the top guys, being a young buck and trying to come through and improve. Now I’m doing it the other way and trying to use the experience, guile, knowledge and good squash to combat these extremely fast and fit youngsters!
“New days, new challenges.”
By Mark Sleightholm
Four-time national champion Laura Massaro is expecting fierce competition as she strives for a fifth title at the AJ Bell British National Squash Championships, held from 14-17 February at the University of Nottingham.
With four [now three] former national champions inside the World’s Top 10, this year’s Nationals will be hotly contested, but something Massaro is looking forward to.
“Right from the first round, there’ll be some really good competitive matches,” said the former World No.1.
“It certainly feels like this year is one of the most competitive in recent years.”
“It’s going to be really strong, and not just at the top end with Tesni, SJ [now withdrawn], Al and myself, but the girls that are playing in the next tier below like Vicky Lust, Millie Tomlinson, Fiona Moverley and Emily Whitlock. Then you’ve got younger girls vying for it as well.”
The open nature of this year’s competition reminded Massaro of the events she played in at the start of her career. Massaro narrowly lost out on the 2008 national title to Alison Waters, but was crowned champion three years later then went on to win the 2012, 2016 and 2017 titles reaching all but four of the finals in the last decade.
“There was an era which was ridiculous with the likes of Sue Wright, Cassie Jackman, Vicky Botright and Tania Bailey and then you had all of us lot underneath,” explained the 35-year-old.
“It was just so hard for so many years to even get a decent win.”
“For me, winning my first national title was really up there as one of my biggest achievements,” Massaro added.
“You grow up playing it year after year, and every year you want to try and do a little bit better. You want to finish your career winning as many national titles as you can.”
Massaro is feeling positive ahead of this week’s event.
“I’ve got really good belief and confidence in myself,” she explained, but added that the extra competition this year has changed her attitude slightly.
“In the past I thought, ‘if I don’t win it then it’ll be a surprise,’ so it’s nice not to have that expectation this year. I’m under no illusions as to how hard and competitive it’s going to be this year.”
The 2019 Nationals will be held in Nottingham for the first time after 20 years in Manchester. Massaro said:
“I’ve never played at the University of Nottingham but I’m looking forward to it. I hear the Premier Squash League matches hosted there are really good.
“I’m sad to be leaving Manchester as I’ve played every single National Championships in my career there but I do think it’s probably the right time for a change and it’ll be nice to host it somewhere different. It’s a great event to be part of, it’s special for all of us.”
By Mark Sleightolm
British Nationals hopeful Declan James is looking forward to what promises to be a fiercely contested championships in his home town of Nottingham next week.
The AJ Bell British National Squash Championships, held from 14-17 February will mark the start of a new era of the tournament when it moves to the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Squash Rackets Club after being held in Manchester for the past 22 years.
The England No.4 believes the tournament will be one of the most open in recent years but is looking to use his home advantage to boost his own chances of winning the title.
“Obviously there’s been a period of dominance in the last decade by Nick Matthew,” he says.
“Now there are at least five or six guys that can realistically win it, and I think that’s one of the fascinating things about this year’s event.”
Matthew, who beat James in the semi-finals in 2017, won a record ten titles between 2006 and 2018, and 2019’s final will be the first in a decade without him.
England No.1 James Willstrop met Matthew in six of those finals and will be looking to win his third title, and someone who James believes is “always capable of producing world-class squash.”
But, as James noted, Willstrop is facing some tough competition.
“You’ve got Daryl, who’s won a big tournament towards the end of last year, myself and a few of the other boys.
“There really is a handful of players who can win it, and I think that’s what going to make the week so interesting.”
James reached a career-high world ranking of 16 in November after winning the Nantes International against Willstrop, as well as reaching the third round of the U.S. Open and the second round of the Channel VAS Championships in October, where he proved to be a stern test for World No.4 Tarek Momen and World No.2 Ali Farag.
James spent the winter period preparing for the Tournament of Champions in New York and now turns his attention to the Nationals.
“It’s one of those goals that you set yourself at the start of your career, and the Nationals would be up there with one of my finest achievements.”
James is feeling positive about his game and is particularly looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd in Nottingham.
“You always want to do well in your home country, there’s pride at stake, so there’s a different feeling to playing in the Nationals” he said.
“It’s really nice to have it in my home town. I’m sure there’s going to be wicked support there for myself, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
By Sam France
Defending champion Tesni Evans will be striving to defend her crown when the AJ Bell British National Squash Championships gets under way from 14-17 February in Nottingham.
A record-breaking 2018 saw Evans become the first Welsh player to win the Nationals and the first to break into the top ten PSA world rankings.
With three English players currently above her in the rankings, she knows it won’t be an easy feat, but thrives on the expectation of her country.
“I’m a very proud Welsh woman and to be able to compete not only for myself but to compete for my country as well is also really important.
“It was always a big goal when I first started playing to make the top ten, and to reach it last year was amazing.
“I feel like my form is pretty good going into this year really.”
Going into the tournament as defending champion will be a new experience for the 26-year-old but it is one she is looking forward to, and she makes no attempt to play down the importance of the Nationals.
“It’s always been a prestigious event to win and it’s always going to be right at the top for me, to try and do as best as I can every year I play it.
“It would be pretty fantastic to win a second title, to be fair.
“Last year was amazing to win it, and it has been so good to be able to hold that title for the year.
“To do it again this year would be pretty special and have two to my name.”
With the likes of Sarah-Jane Perry, Laura Massaro, and Alison Waters joining Evans as the top four seeds in Nottingham, she believes it is an open field with ‘six or seven girls’ going in with a real chance of winning.
“So as well as that little bit more pressure from winning it last year, I think the other girls will be fighting hard to get it as well.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty tough week.”