YORKSHIRE’S world-leading squash rivals, Nick Matthew and James Willstrop, have been backed to maintain their dominance of the sport well into 2012.
Sheffield-born Matthew has now racked up a whole year as world No 1, his second stint at the top of the PSA World Tour rankings, a signficant achievement given the increasingly competitive nature of the men’s game.
Now, six years after he initially rose to second in the world rankings as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, fellow Yorkshireman Willstrop is back as world No 2 and could even find himself usurping Matthew at the top of the tree should results in the last major tour event of the year in India go his way in two weeks.
It is the first time two Englishman have held the top two ranking places since 2004 when Peter Nicol and Yorkshire’s Lee Beachill and with Harrogate’s Jenny Duncalf still world No 2 in the women’s game, Yorkshire has never had it so good in the sport. But both players and their coaches alike are quick to acknowledge that maintaining such lofty heights will prove the biggest challenge of all.
Chris Robertson, head coach for England Squash, the game’s governing body, works on a regular basis with both players throughout the year and was with them in Paderborn, Germany, back in August when they suffered an agonising defeat to arch-rivals Egypt in the World Team Championships.
And while the main threat to Matthew and Willstrop’s positions is widely accepted to come from Egypt in the months to come, Robertson is confident the duo can hold on to their current status.
“These two guys are special,” said Robertson. “They are totally different to each other, both in the way they play and the way they prepare, their outlook on life.
“I don’t think I’ve come across anyone more professional than Nick and James in how they prepare, how they respond to feedback and just the way they conduct themselves generally.
“Having these two guys as one and two in the world, doing things the right way should serve as such an inspiration to other youngsters coming through the system.
“It’s not just about the number of tournament wins. The lasting legacy they can leave to younger players is showing how things should be done and how they are as people.
“They are great rivals and their positions at the top of the rankings are going to come under threat, mainly from Egypt’s leading players, in particular Ramy Ashour.
“But for the next one to two years I can still see Nick and James winning events and being at the top of their game.”
The latest rankings for this month are the first since December 2005 not to feature a player from Egypt, which in recent years has produced a string of top players – Amr Shabana and Karim Darwish being followed by the gifted Ashour, the man who held the No 1 spot before Matthew regained it in January and who has now – after an injury-riddled year – been replaced by Willstrop in second spot.
Willstrop’s ascendancy has been a steady one throughout 2011, with five semi-final appearances being followed by a runner-up spot in October’s Qatar Classic.
More semi-final disappointment followed in the World Open before the 28-year-old finally found a way to win – for the first time since January 2010 – when lifting the Hong Kong Open. That was quickly followed by this week’s triumph in the Kuwait Cup, leaving him in confident mood going into 2012, although he is aware of the tough challenge that awaits to try to hold on to a top two spot – whichever way round that happens to be.
“I need to make sure that I build on the confidence I have gained in recent months, but without getting too carried away,” said Willstrop, coached by his father Malcolm in Pontefract.
“You have to stay as grounded as possible because every week it can be different. There are plenty of players around who can beat you so I have to make sure I keep calm and focused.
“I also have to keep doing what I have been doing, because it’s obviously been working. But, at the same time, you always need to look for areas where you can improve even more – you can’t afford to stand still.”
As for Matthew, it would be easy for the 31-year-old to sit back and admire his achievements over the past 12 months – in particular his back-to-back world titles.
His first spell as No 1 lasted three months in 2010, but he believes that initial experience of being the man everybody wanted to beat has helped him stay at the top far longer this time around.
“Maybe if Ramy had stayed fit for the whole year, we wouldn’t be even having this conversation, because maybe James and me would have been two and three in the world,” said Matthew.
“The key for me is not to get too affected by what other players may or may not be doing and just concentrate on improving every little aspect of my game.
“I think when I first became world No 1, the pressure was slightly different in subtle ways and I wasn’t really equipped to deal with it. Second time around I think I’ve handled it far better.”
Matthew’s game seems to have flourished ever since he returned from a career-threatening shoulder injury back in 2008, something he acknowledges has given him a more relaxed attitude towards any setbacks he has encountered since.
“It was really serious back then and there have been some ups and down since and there will be some more,” he added.
“But everything was put into perspective with that injury and I think that has helped my approach ever since.”