February, 02/07/2013
By Alan Thatcher
Photographs by ANDREW PREZIOSO

James Willstrop wants it back. All of it. The titles, the trophies, and, most of all, the number one ranking. Willstrop entered the 2012 Davenport North American Open on a cathartic journey of selfhealing.

He admitted that he had succumbed a year earlier to the overwhelming stresses of constant travel and high- level competition, and his love for squash was being strangled by the burdens of expectation and a relentless physical overload demanded by a sport as brutal as squash.

Despite suffering from burnout, he decided to keep a diary of his activities. And the diary turned into a revealing autobiography, called Shot And A Ghost.

The title is the name of a squash routine in which you hit the ball back to the feeder, and then move to the opposite side of the court and simulate the same shot, but without the ball. That’s called ghosting, a popular and savage kind of training developed by the master of squash masochism called Jonah Barrington.

A normal shot and ghost routine will see the hitter striking 90 shots (30 drives, 30 volleys and 30 drops) and simulating the same number of shots on the other side of the court. If you think that sounds easy, then try it yourself.

Willstrop’s fear was that he was turning into a ghost himself, unsure of his devotion to the sport and unhappy with his own relationships inside and outside the game.

The book was a success. It was shortlisted for the prestigious William Hill Sports Book Of The Year awards in the UK, a first for a squash book. More importantly, it helped Willstrop to regain his focus and understand the mental processes he was going through.

It also changed the way he played. From being a player renowned for flair and a love of attacking, entertaining squash, he suddenly found the inner-game discipline required to be a mean, methodical, disciplined machine. A player who preferred the straight lines and the ability to squeeze dry even

the most adventurous of opponents. His triumph over Egyptian maestro Ramy Ashour in lastyear’s final at the Westwood Club was a clear illustration of a master tactician at work.

Even his greatest rival, fellow Englishman Nick Matthew, described it as a tactical master-class.

Willstrop’s triumph in Richmond took place during the only month last year when he was not at number one in the PSA world rankings. His victory soon put thatright. But now, a year later, he enters the 2013 NAO as number three seed behind Ashour and Matthew.

Ashour’s storming run through the second half of 2012, coupled with his victory in the World Championship in Qatar, has propelled him back to number one in the rankings.

Willstrop said: “Ramy deserves to be back up there after winning three World Series events in a row. He is good for the game. When he is free of mental fears and free of injuries he is a devastating opponent on court.

“That’s not good for me, I know, but when he is the number one player he is the one we have to aim for and try to beat. It will make it very interesting and produce some hard-fought tournaments with so many players trying to win.”

Willstrop has fond memories of last year’s Richmond tournament. He said: “Beating Ramy in the final is a match I will always remember because to beat someone like him in straight games in a major final is something special.

“It’s the kind of performance you strive for. Everything came together for three games and it’s certainly a career highlight for me.”


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