England expects in Bellevue

Player Profiles Part 3: The Englishmen

by Matthew Lombardi

SH20344The origins of squash lie in England, where in the 1830s students at the Harrow school came up with the first rudimentary version of the game.

England continues to play a central role in the sport; the administrative offices of the Professional Squash Association are in Leeds, and English players are among the best in the world, led by three-time world champion Nick Matthew, who is profiled as one of the four favorites.

It’s common for squash fans to speak of the game as having two contrasting styles of play: the Egyptian—risk-taking and flashy, with a premium put on exceptional racquet skills—and the English—more conservative and patient, with a tactical approach that treats each match as a war of attrition.

It’s not hard to find exceptions to such broad generalizations, but there’s a lot of truth to them as well. English players tend to be hard-nosed fighters, and they seldom beat themselves by making careless errors.

Matthew is the most notable example of another trait that’s common to many of the top English players: they tend to play their best squash later in their careers. Matthew didn’t win his first World Championship until he was 30, and all four of the Englishmen ranked in the top 20 are over 30 years of age. The phenomenon gives a glimmer of hope to the younger generation of English players, who are currently being outshined by their Egyptian counterparts.

Englishmen in the 2015 World Championship

Other than Matthew, the most successful of the current English players is James Willstrop, a 32-year-old Yorkshireman.

He’s one of the gaSH20327me’s more interesting characters and an exception to most of the rules about English-style squash. At 6’4” and 200 pounds he’s the biggest man on the tour, and he doesn’t cut a particularly athletic figure, but he moves with surprising nimbleness, and he’s a gifted shot-maker, as capable as any Egyptian of hitting winners from all over the court. His backhand drop shot in particular is a thing of beauty.

Willstrop won the World Junior Championships in 2002 and had risen to a top-five ranking by the age of 22. His early success marked him as the star of his generation, and he’s gone on to be one of the world’s best players, reaching the #1 ranking in 2012. But he’s been outpaced by his rival Matthew, who has dominated him in head-to-head competition, including wins in the final of the 2010 World Championships and in four British Nationals finals.

Off the court Willstrop also cuts a different figure from his fellow Englishmen. While most of them are classic sports lads, jocular and relentlessly competitive, Willstrop is a gentler spirit, polite and at times a little aloof. You wouldn’t be surprised to find a book of poems by John Keats in his kit bag.

In 2014 and 2015 Willstrop’s career took a detour when a hip injury required surgery. For the first time in a decade he dropped out of the top 10. One of the subplots of the 2015-16 season is whether he can return to his previous elite form. If he can, he’s a dark-horse threat to take the World Championship title in Bellevue.

SH20340Thirty-two-year-old Londoner Peter Barker is in many ways James Willstrop’s opposite. He’s a fiery competitor who has stayed in the top 10 for the past five years based largely on his single-minded will to win. On court he stares daggers at his opponents and referees, and when things aren’t going his way you’d swear you can see steam rising out of his ears.

Despite his aggressive demeanor, Barker is one of the leading practitioners of the patient, methodical English style of squash. He’s happy to rally up and down the side wall, wearing his opponent down and waiting for him to make a mistake.

It’s not the most exciting style of play, but if you’re as patient a viewer as Barker is a player, you can find some pleasure in watching his strategy unfold over the course of a match—the way opponents grow tired and frustrated, and Barker, sensing an advantage, goes in for the kill.

The approach has its limitations. Barker has been very successful at reaching the quarterfinals and occasionally the semis in major tournaments, but he’s never broken through against the highest-level players to notch a major win.

SH20302The fourth Englishman who has been a consistent presence in the top 20 is 32-year-old Essex native Daryl Selby. His playing style and his results are similar to Barker’s, but his temperament is more easygoing. He favors long rallies in which he methodically works his opponent out of position.

In the English tradition, Selby has found his greatest success later in his career. He entered the top 20 for the first time at the age of 27 and has remained there ever since, rising as high as #9. His biggest victory came in the final of the 2011 British Nationals, where he upset then world #1 Nick Matthew.

Behind the veterans there’s a group of English players in their mid-20s who are slowly rising up the ranks. It doesn’t look like there’s another Nick Matthew or James Willstrop among them, but there may be a Barker or a Selby.

Simpson & Matthew

Twenty-eight-year-old Chris Simpson has been knocking on the door of the top 20 and he represented England in international competition for the first time at the European Team Championship. Adrian GrantTom Richards, Adrian Waller, and Joe Lee are also ranked in the top 50.

England’s brightest hopes for the future are Declan James and Richie Fallows, the two finalists in this year’s British Under-23 Championship. They’re both powerful hitters who aim to make it into the main draw in Bellevue through the qualifying rounds.

If that list of names isn’t enough, there are plenty more Englishmen ranked between 50 and 100 likely to feature in the World Championship draw, namely Eddie Charlton, Charles Sharpes, Ben Coleman, Joel Hinds, Tom Ford, James Earles, Jaymie Haycocks, Angus Gillams, and plenty of up and coming juniors too.

Matthew Lombardi

English players in action – mainly at the British Nationals in Manchester

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