IT should come as no surprise, I guess, that this is always one of the biggest weeks of the year for me.
Hopefully, having a few ‘home’ comforts will help me enjoy this week’s British Open in Hull to the full and I can pick up a fourth title.
Often referred to as the ‘Wimbledon’ of squash’ the tournament is the most historic on the world tour. Nowadays, of course, it is rivalled by the World Open as the most presitigious event we have, although this is the one, for me, which always means a bit more.
I think the main reason for that is that this is the tournament that is responsible for me doing what I do for a living now.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, we used to go down to Wembley every year and watch the likes of squash legends such as Jahinger Khan and Jansher Khan.
At that point, I was still playing lots of different sports but, being down there for the British Open was what ultimately made up my mind as to where I knew my sporting future lay. The thought of maybe being able to do what those guys were doing and being on centre stage like that, convinced me that squash was the way to go.
I remember playing through the first couple of years and not making it through the qualifying rounds. Then one year, I won three matches and made it to the main draw, but came up against a guy who was in the top 30 in the world and he was a bit too good for me at that point. But it was a great experience and I had such a great time.
I think, as a player, you can draw on those early experiences. You start to get a feel for the event and begin to appreciate the history and the tradition that goes with it – it is the oldest squash event in the world and it all contributes to that understanding of what the event actually means – having played through all the qualifying stages in the past.
I’ve been able to win this event three times in my career and each one has been special for different reasons.
Winning the first one back in 2006 was particuarly memorable and bit of a breakthrough for me as I sort of came from left field a little bit and nobody expected me to win. Then, suddenly, I found myself in the spotlight and everybody was telling me that it had been 67 years since an English player had won the event and stuff like that.
But it was a quick learning experience for me in terms of how to shut out all of those outside experiences and just try to concentrate on my game. I do remember being incredibly nervous playing that final, but I came back in the fifth game to win against Thierry Lincou who was No 1 in the world at the time. He’d had a riduclous route through to the final, so I was fresher but he had the experience and I still managed to win it.
I can remember the relief and, while it was the best moment in my career, I had a really terrible few months after winning the title because I think I believed I had done it then and, if I’m being honest, it took me a long time to get my feet back on the floor after winning that first British Open title and coming back to reality.
Winning in 2009 was memorable for different reasons. I’d had shoulder surgery the year before and I’d been out of action for about eight months. So winning it in Manchester about a year after I’d come back from surgery was a big moment for me. That was obviously a memorable final against James Willstrop and it’s where our fractious relationship kicked off a bit.
When I won in 2012, it was probably my favourite British Open that I’ve played in. It was a major showcase for squash down there at the O2 Arena and, in the final against Ramy Ashour, it was probably one of the best matches I’ve ever played.
I’m just hopeful that I’m not going to have to wait until next year in order to win it again as it seems to happen every three years – hopefully, I can break that pattern this year!
The event is in Hull again this year and while everyone knows there were problems last year because of the showcourt being situated on the pitch at Hull City’s KC Stadium, this year it is all inside so there shouldn’t be any disruptions to play.
But I think Dr Allam needs to be applauded for the idea of taking it to the football stadium and it did generate a lot of extra publicity for the sport. Unfortunately, the wet Yorkshire Spring weather didn’t help matters at all. Even when the sun was shining, there was a problem with glare for both players and spectators. But I genuinely believe that it was an experiment worth trying and something that they will maybe go back to – it shouldn’t just be totally abandoned and maybe it’s something they can look at later down the line.
Having the tournament in Hull has been good for the sport in the area, it seems to be gaining a bit of momentum over there now.
I went over to Hull a few weeks ago and the junior scene and the junior clinic at the University and the number of kids playing in that area on the back of the British Open being held there is wonderful to see. They’ve all been inspired because of the tournament being close to them and you can really see a legacy starting to take place, which is brilliant for the sport.
AND ANOTHER THING ....
A BUSY week in Hull begins today in the first round against Joe Lee – one of the next generation of English players.
I’ve trained with him a lot during England senior squad sessions in Manchester and he’s a great training partner – very professional and pays great attention to detail. It will be a tough game to open with as he has nothing to lose and these early rounds can always throw up a big banana skin.
If I get past him, I have a rest day on Tuesday which will help with the rest of week.
Overall, I suppose you have that top handful of seeds – Ramy (Ashour), James (Willstrop), Greg (Gaultier), myself, Amr Shabana and Mohamed Elshorbagy – who are the guys most likely to win the event.
Maybe when I won my first British Open title I was in that category of players who could maybe beat a top player or two, but winning the event itself was a big, big task.
It shows that it is possible but, if you were a betting man, you probably would not look outside those top six players for your champion.