By Doug Woodburn
Can James Willstrop continue to mix it on the PSA World Tour past 40?
Despite playing noticeably fewer matches last season, ‘The Marksman’ showed he can still challenge the very best when he took Mohamed Elshorbagy to the wire at Canary Wharf in March.
But talking to Squash IQ for Squash Site in the wake of our ‘Willstrop: 40 at 40’ video shown above (see part 1 of interview here), the former world number one conceded that he is taking it “week by week” as he increasingly balances playing with his other interests such as coaching and acting.
Willstrop has played 731 matches and 246 tournaments on the PSA.
But like a squash version of Roger Federer, the 39-year old is getting increasingly selective about how often he plays (appearing in just nine tournaments last season).
“I don’t need to play squash. I’m doing it just for fun,” Willstrop explained.
“But when I have the ability to produce performances like I did in March, part of me thinks: why would I just let all that go and throw it away too quickly, just because I’m 40?
“I do love it but I’m a little bit conscious of the toll it takes and don’t want to have a knackered body.”
Willstrop admitted that he no longer has “the mental intensity or desire” to engage in eight hours of squash a day as he balances his career in the sport with other interests, including acting.
But his passion for treading the boards has actually benefited his squash, the Yorkshireman maintained.
“I’m absolutely sure [acting] helped me. After I was doing plays I’d go back to play a tournament and would often play really well”
“It would be really nice to go into acting as a profession, but part of me doesn’t want to do that as it gives me that time away from squash,” he explained.
“I’m absolutely sure it helped me. After I was doing plays I’d go back to play a tournament and would often play really well. It’s something about exercising another part of the mind: engaging in that other activity that gives you time away from the sport allows your subconscious to take hold a little bit.
“I think some of the athletes aren’t very good at that. I don’t think I was very good at that. It becomes all consuming: it’s just train, eat, sleep; train, eat, sleep – and that can get dangerous.
“Later in my career there were other things to think about and I’m sure that helped my squash.
“Like having a family and having children. A lot of athletes say it takes you away from the sport and some people are scared about it ruining things. I don’t think it needs to do that, and it can be a real help.”
Coaching has also “taken over” following the passing of James’ father Malcolm, who had built up and run Pontefract Squash & Leisure Club.
“It’s just how life has worked out,” he said.
“Malcolm wasn’t ill for very long and was basically running a world-class coaching system. Things had to happen quickly. We [James and his partner, former world number one Vanessa Atkinson – pictured above] just jumped into this coaching position because it was what we felt needed to happen. We’re running a lot of what happens at Ponte, with the help of others.
“The training I do there has to be mixed in with that, so I’m just doing bits here and there.”
Will we see Willstrop next season?
Having recently announced his retirement at aged 40, Spain’s Borja Golan continued to compete successfully on the PSA tour by focusing more on his shot selection and ball control.
Even Golan, however, was in awe of the precision and shot-making abilities that make Willstrop such a unique spectacle in every tournament he enters.
So, can fans expect to see more of Willstrop’s laser-like racket skills on Squash TV next year?
“People are obsessed with age, and I’m not really thinking about that if I can help it,” Willstrop said.
“If I feel okay, the physio is happy with me and I’m not getting too many aches and pains, I can maybe keep going and have one or two more occasions like March. It was tremendously exciting being back in that arena again being able to compete with players like Mohamed.
“I do enjoy training so I’ll try and train a bit over the summer. If the body responds, there might be a reason to play on a bit if I can get into some tournaments.”