IN the end, it was a familiar outcome, but James Willstrop came closer than ever to ending the dominance arch-rival Nick Matthew has enjoyed over him for almost seven years.
The 30-year-old from Pontefract may have beaten his fellow Yorkshireman on a couple of occasions in European club squash but, since defeating him to clinch the English Open title in Matthew’s home city of Sheffield in December 2007, Willstrop has not secured a positive outcome against the current world champion in a major event.
One of those 24 defeats came at the last Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Willstrop putting up a decent fight before being vanquished in the men’s singles final in straight games in just over an hour.
Yesterday in Glasgow, it was a much different story, Willstrop pushing his England team-mate all the way in a thrilling final lasting 100 minutes, Matthew eventually successful in defending his singles title 11-9 8-11 11-5 6-11 11-5.
When Matthew went 2-1 ahead at Scotstoun Sports Campus, most people assumed he would go on to close it out in four games.
But Willstrop – possibly stung by the fact that three of his last four defeats at the hands of world No 2 Matthew had not gone beyond three games – rallied superbly, controlling the fourth to deliver a fifth and deciding game for the capacity crowd.
Matthew raced into a 5-1 lead and although Willstrop closed to within two points, he was always chasing, making a desperate, ultimately futile lunge towards the ball for the match-deciding point that saw Matthew retain his title.
Make no mistake, Matthew – who turned 34 last Friday – deserves all the plaudits going.
Considering he was coming around from a knee operation barely six weeks ago to leave him with serious doubts as to whether he would even make the Commonwealth Games, his ability and determination to recover to go and win gold is staggering.
In 2009, Matthew and Willstrop – himself hampered by a hip injury during his preparation for Glasgow – made headlines following a bad-tempered British Open final in Manchester, a brutal clash which saw Matthew prevail after more than two hours.
It is clear the pair will never be the best of friends – neither makes any secret of that – but, following their latest duel, the mutual respect they have for each other was clear for all to see.
Afterwards, Matthew admitted it had been a hard slog to reach his latest moment of glory, but said his well-known stubbornness got him through in the end.
“It wasn’t the prettiest squash I’ve ever played but I’m a Yorkshireman, an only child and a Leo,” said Matthew, whose main focus after the conclusion of these Games will be the birth of his and wife Esme’s first child.
“So if you put that together you’ve got one hell of a stubborn so-and-so. Having my back to the wall brings out the best in me.
“Considering what we’ve both been through, this match is a testament to both of us – we both deserve to stand at the top of the podium.”
Willstrop was again left to reflect on what might have been, but exited the court in positive mood.
“I’m disappointed to lose, of course, but I am really proud of my performance,” he said.
“I just enjoyed every second of it – I just loved being on that court. I’ve come off having lost, but I’m happy.
“I have great respect for what Nick has achieved. It’s miraculous what he’s done to get back after his surgery.
“But this is not a loss – I’ve won a silver medal. Playing on an occasion like this doesn’t get any better.”
Peter Barker’s 11-5 6-11 11-5 11-6 win over India’s Saurav Ghosal made it a clean sweep for England in the medal stakes as he took bronze.
There was disappointment in the women’s singles final, however, when England’s Laura Massaro could do nothing to stop Malaysia’s Nicol David from retaining her title.