James Willstrop: “Hello Stranger”

First time I saw James, he was 19, it was during the UK Nationals 2004 in Manchester.

I followed all his career. I was there when he won Qatar – we chatted quickly behind the court as we were all flying off to Hong Kong about 3h later; also when he won the Pakistan Open, when from the strength/courage that comes from being only 20 years old, he questioned Rahmat Khan on the overage problem of all the Pakistani Juniors!

I’m probably one of his greatest fans, I am not afraid to say he is one of my GOATS for sure. I will never forget that day in NY TOC, where he told me “Fram, there are two kind of ladies. The ‘High Maintenance ones”, and the “Low Maintenance ones”. You created a third kind, the “Very Very Very High Maintenant ladies”.

As if.

His matches against Ramy Ashour, in particular, one on a side court in the SkyOpen 2009 quarter, where the Maverick Artist won by a whisker, 12-10 in the 5th, with 4 people watching: the three refs and your servant, are for me the epitome of class, sportsmanship, fairness, intensity and flair.

I hadn’t seen my James since the departure of Malcolm his dad. Everybody on the Tour knows how close I was from Malcolm, I admired him and respected him probably more than I do anybody else in Squash.

Of course, I had to cover myself with ridicule by bursting into tears on the steps of the Palm Hills traditional centre, with James being very British and going “Oh well, I just landed in Cairo and I already made a woman cry”…

I never hid my resentment at the way Mostafa Asal played in those last years, which, in my eyes, damaged “my sport.”

Firstly, Mostafa started training with ‘Kiki’ Mohamed Elkeiy from Alexandria, for whom I have the utmost respect. But the transformation came when Ragging ‘Bully’ accepted he HAD to change and went to work with James in Pontefract.

The result is incredible.

Even if there are times when the “Old Mostafa” shows his former self, like he did in the World Semis against Paul Coll. I was NOT IMPRESSED. And I was so happy that James, knowing what I was going to say, still sat with me the next morning at the Ritz Carlton breakfast.

We chatted for more than an hour and a half. About 10 litres of Earl Grey later, we agreed that it was a little wobble along the way, quite understandably…