Matthew wins race for Commonwealth Games swansong

Nick Matthew
Nick Matthew
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AT the beginning of the year, Nick Matthew told The Yorkshire Post that a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games was his priority for 2014.

Make no mistake, becoming world champion or a British Open winner for a fourth time were still high on the Sheffield-born world No 2’s agenda, but it is success in Glasgow over the next two to three weeks that he has planned for more than anything else these past few months.

It is not as if Matthew has not tasted success in the Commonwealths before, being a double gold medal winner at Delhi four years ago. He defends both his singles and men’s doubles titles in Scotland.

Given his desire to retain both above anything else this year, it must have been even harder for Matthew to deal with the blow he received three weeks ago when a routine scan on his knee revealed he needed an urgent operation if he was to make it to Glasgow.

Within three days of the scan, he was undergoing surgery and has since faced a race against time in order to be ready for the event, with a recovery period that usually takes six weeks. It is a race he is confident of winning.

Matthew – his powers of recovery previously seen after undergoing surgery for a career-threatening shoulder injury in 2007 – is on course to be ready for action in the men’s singles on Thursday – just four-and-a-half weeks after going under the knife.

“I guess it was lucky I spotted the pain in my knee when I did because the scan was on the Friday and I was straight in for the op on the Monday,” said Matthew.

“I had no choice because I wanted to get fit for the Commonwealth Games.

“It’s meant to be a six-week rehab process and we’re trying to do it in four-and-a-half so being ready for that first match was always going to be tough but, I’m back on court now and I’m progressing well.

“I was back on court within two-and-a-half weeks, which I think is a bit of a record and that’s a testament to everyone that’s been working with me both in Sheffield and Manchester.

“It’s pretty much been 24-7 about the knee, but now I’m starting to think more about my actual performance. The improvement I’ve made on a daily basis, never mind over three or four days at a time, has been phenomenal and I’m confident that by the time that first match comes around, it will just be the match sharpness I’ll need to top up on.

“Hopefully, I can play myself into the tournament, but you have to remember that my preparation over the last four weeks has not been ideal. I’m a professional athlete and training for the last 15 years and for most of that time my preparation has been fine, so I will be relying on that more than anything else.

“I’m aware that it’s going to be a big mental push, but I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary.”

Next Friday – one day after the men’s singles begins at the Scotstoun Sports Campus – will see Matthew celebrate his 34th birthday, making him the joint-second oldest player on the Professional Squash Association world tour.

Currently ranked second in the world, he has been a world No 1 on three separate occasions – reigning supreme throughout the whole of 2011.

The current world’s top 10 comprises four Englishmen, four Egyptians, one Frenchman and one Spaniard, but it is only his English rivals Matthew will have to worry about in the singles in Scotland, not surprisingly making him most people’s favourite to pick up another gold medal.

But there is no doubt that the recent injury scare has given Matthew plenty to ponder ahead of his first round opener against Xavier Koenig, a 29-year-old from Mauritius making his Games debut.

“When you have got an injury like this it really makes you realise a number of things,” he added.

“The main thing is that you quickly realise your career is not infinite and that, at any time, it might be taken out of your hands when your body just lets you down and forces you to pack up.

“And I think that if that happened to me tomorrow, of course I’d be disappointed but I would be able to take it on the chin because I’ve been fortunate to have had such a fantastic career.

“But, at the same time, having an injury does reignite that fire inside of you and it makes you realise how lucky you are to be fit and healthy and doing something that you love for a living.

“So an injury – particularly something like this one – probably gives you a bit more perspective really.

“But I’ve come back well from injuries before, although the time frame has been a bit more of a challenge this time around.”

Given the repeated rejection of the sport by the International Olympic Committee, the Commonwealth Games is as close as some of squash’s top stars will come to experiencing something similar.

It will be Matthew’s third Games, the Yorkshireman making his debut in Melbourne in 2006 – the year he won the first of his three British Open titles – when he was beaten to a bronze medal by fellow Yorkshireman Lee Beachill.

That disappointment drove him on to a memorable few days four years later in Delhi when he saw off James Willstrop 3-0 in the final before earning a second gold medal in the men’s doubles with Peter Barker, who partners him again in Glasgow.

Although Glasgow cannot be regarded as ‘home’, Matthew knows it is as close as that feeling is ever going to get, given it will probably be his last Games and that it was too early in his professional career for him to be considered for Manchester in 2002.

Having achieved all that is possible to achieve in the sport, Matthew could be forgiven for slowing down as he enters his 34th year. But there is little danger of that happening as he continues to strive to improve his game – even though he realises ‘the perfect game’ will always be beyond him.

“I don’t really think I need to prove anything to anyone anymore,” he said. “If anything, I just have to keep reminding myself that I can still do it. It’s nice to prove that to yourself from time to time. When I watch things on video, I always sit there thinking how much better it could still be, I guess I’m a perfectionist.

“And with being off court lately I’ve been studying games of mine on video and trying to get into the mindset of playing without playing, if that makes sense. When I watch myself competing on video I sit there thinking ‘why didn’t you do that?’ and ‘why didn’t you play this shot?’

“Squash is like that, there’s no such thing as producing the perfect match – there are always plenty of improvements you can make.”