No Olympic glory but Willstrop and Matthew fly the flag for Yorkshire

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THERE were a number of Yorkshire athletes who became world beaters this year, making a name for themselves as gold medal winners at the huge summer party that was London 2012.

But there has been another sport where Yorkshire has ruled the world throughout the entire year – unfortunately without gaining anything like the attention such an achievement merits.

Tomorrow night sees the annual celebration of sporting greatness with the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, this time round being held at the ExCel Arena in London.

And while the focus will quite rightly be on the Olympic achievements from the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Andy Murray, to Yorkshire’s Jessica Ennis and Nicola Adams, there is only likely to be the briefest of mentions – if anything – for two other high-achievers hailing from the White Rose county.

Between them, James Willstrop and Nick Matthew have effectively ruled the world in squash this year – the former rightly earning the greater plaudits having spent 11 months as the men’s No 1, with his fierce rival from Sheffield the only man to interrupt that run back in February.

Two days ago, both men – who you can vote for in the Yorkshire Post Sports Star of 2012 (see below) – saw their attempts to lift the World Championship end at the semi-final stage.

But that should not take away anything from the consistency both have displayed during these past 12 months, in particular Willstrop who, like Matthew last year when he was No 1 throughout 2011, has kept his rivals one step behind.

Yorkshire’s two-year hold on the No 1 spot will end next month when Egypt’s Ramy Ashour returns to the top of the tree, his defeat of Matthew in Thursday night’s World Championship semi-final enough to take him back there.

And while 2012 has not been as successful for Willstrop in terms of tournament wins – just one coming at the North American Open in Virginia back in February – he insists it has been his most enjoyable period during his nine years on the professional circuit.

“It has to be the most successful spell I’ve had,” said Willstrop from his hotel room in the Qatar capital of Doha, the morning after his semi-final defeat to Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy.

“The hard work was done at the end of last year when I won those three events in a row to take me to No 1. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being No 1.

“It’s going to be over in a few days’ time and it might never come around again, but I’m going to try my hardest to get it back at some point in the future.

“Being No 1 sees everybody raise their game against you, it’s only natural. But nobody playing you is under pressure because the expectation is all on you as you are supposed to win.

“And you expect to win yourself and I’ve always been confident in what I do, so it’s a different kind of psychology being No 1.”

Given the euphoria that swept the country earlier this year in London, it seems a crying shame that the likes of Willstrop and Matthew were not allowed the chance to have their own Olympic moments in front of a raucous home crowd.

This week sees the sport make its third attempt to join the Olympic movement when the World Squash Federation makes a presentation to the IOC in an attempt to gain inclusion to the 2020 Games.

Last time, when looking to make the 2016 Games in Rio, rugby sevens and golf were the preferred choice of Olympic members, but hopes are high that squash can finally gain a seat at the table that so many people feel it deserves.

It would immediately boost the profile for the sport, if nothing else in terms of media coverage which, at best, has been patchy in recent years. Willstrop feels great strides have been made in recent years, making the sport more appealing to both a TV audience and the pages of the national newspapers.

“I feel the whole Tour is moving forward and is stronger now than it’s ever been,” said Willstrop.

“We are making progress and, particularly over the last few months, I feel there has been increased attention from the media which can only be a good thing.

“I think we were on the front page of the BBC Sport website earlier this week which is the first time I’ve known that. Normally we’re harder to find in the ‘other sports’ section.

“It does make a difference when you get support and coverage from people – every little bit helps.”

2013 will bring a different challenge for Willstrop – the hunter, as it were, instead of the hunted.

Matthew has spent the past year – apart from one month – chasing Willstrop and will begin next year one place above his fellow Yorkshireman, who will drop to third in the rankings when they are announced at the beginning of January.

The 32-year-old admits the gifted Ashour has rightfully earned his return to the top of the list, but is determined to earn himself a third spell as the world’s leading player.

“Going into the World Championships there were four of us who could have gone to No 1 next month,” said Matthew. “That shows how tight it all is at the top as no one player has really dominated this year.

“As it turns out, it is Ramy who will be No 1 and, after winning the last three events this year, he fully deserves to be there.

“Both myself and James have been proud of what we have achieved in the last two-three years – two guys from Yorkshire being right up there at the top of their game.”

phil.harrison@ypn.co.uk

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