Squash Universe chats with James Willstrop, a member of the PSA World Tour since 1999. James was named Young Male Player of the Year at the 2005 World Squash Awards and PSA Player of the Year at the 2008 World Squash Awards. He reached World No. 1 in January 2012 and held the spot nearly all year. James became the most capped England squash player in history when he won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Cover photo credit: Commonwealth Games Squash 2018
James kindly spoke with Squash Universe by phone. This post is the second of two parts and has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SU: I also learned, among your many talents, that you are an author and wrote the book Shot and a Ghost: A Year in the Brutal World of Professional Squash in 2012 about life on the PSA Tour. What motivated you to do that?
JW: I love writing. I love reading. I love the written word, spoken word. I love acting and drama. I suppose I have a way of looking at the world and thinking about the world. I am quite introverted and spend time thinking and processing. Writing is one of those things I enjoy. I don’t know how you explain it but if you love writing, you feel like you want to put something out there. I find it easier to write things down that I do sometimes talking to people. I felt there was maybe some interest. Nobody had written much of a squash book before. Well, there had been squash books but they were few and far between.
Nobody had written anything about what it was like being a [squash] athlete travelling the world. And I knew that when I traveled around, I knew that people were quite interested in it – what does a [squash] athlete do and how do they train and how they think. I love reading and listening about what other athletes do. Not just athletes but people in their own fields. How do they operate, how do they have that desire. How do they drive themselves every day to repeat things over and over again to get so good at them.
Life playing on the PSA Tour was very interesting and I had a lot of things to say that I felt could translate. So I thought I am just going to write it – I didn’t want to write any kind of autobiography so I wrote it in diaries – just day-to-day, this is what I am doing. I love diaries, I love reading diaries of people. I suppose I am a little bit of a “nosy parker” in that sense. I find learning about people’s life and [what] they take away very day is just fascinating so that is the way that I wanted to [write my book].
I started having flashbacks within [the book] so that I could go back in time to various parts of my career. I look back at it now and I was a different person back then in 2011 but that is what I wrote at the time. I wrote some things that I would never write now and I probably didn’t include things that I should have included but that is the process of writing. You are putting yourself out there at that given time and there is probably stuff I kind of regret a little bit about it but that’s the way I did it.
SU: It is your work, it’s an original.
JW: That’s it and that’s the risk you take. You put something out there. But it was nice to do and I enjoyed it. That’s how that came about really.
SU: Speaking of traveling on the PSA Tour, what is your favorite professional tournament?
JW: I love New York. I love a lot of tournaments but New York – the Tournament of Champions – is very special. There are lots of things that make tournaments good – it can be just the ease of organization, it can be the hotel, it can be the city, it can be where you are situated, it can be the feeling of the community there. There can be lots of different things and so many tournaments have different things I like about them but New York for me has all of those things and John Nimick’s* events are really spectacular. He has done an incredible job with San Francisco and New York. And I love them both. They are unbelievable venues and great for the game. I love the cities – I am very affectionate towards San Francisco and New York.
*SU note: John Nimick is President of Squash Engine which produces premier squash events.
You put all that with the fact that [New York] is run brilliantly – the organization is unbelievable, the hotel is comfortable and beautiful and then you have this incredible venue [Grand Central Station]. I have never heard acoustics like it – it is perfect for squash. The sound is brilliant then you have the crowd that gets into it. They give you so much back and they shout. I just love it. I think ever part of the event is great. I think a lot of players love that event.
SU: [New York] tends to be a favorite among players.
JW: It is very, very special. I wrote a full article* in the Guardian newspaper about that event and how special it is to me. I shall never forget my times there. Now I am getting older and the time that I know I won’t be able to play that event again will be one of the most disappointing parts of my life. One thing that squash has given me, however how hard the work or training gets – it is all worth it when I get to play in a venue like that.
*SU note: This article can be found at: (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/willstrop-s-world/2017/may/10/sport-squash-train-station-grand-central-terminal-new-york?CMP=share_btn_link)
SU: I have been to a couple of matches there – sitting next to the glass by the side wall and noticing seeing all the people walking by, who don’t even know what squash is, stop and watch.
JW: It is good for the game. People see it for the first time. There are just walking in [to Grand Central Station] to get their train and they are seeing squash for the first time. It is a fantastic idea. So clever. It is a real pleasure.
SU: Where would you like to see squash in the future?
JW: Wow, that is a great question. Immediately, I would like to see more women playing the game. I think the women’s game is unbelievable now – that needs to start translating to women and girls watching. I think there is a problem there we need to address – certainly in the UK maybe even more than in America. You do see a lot of male-oriented audiences and we have to correct that somehow. I would love to see, in essence, more people seeing the game and playing.
I think it is a lovely wonderful sport – socially it has been fabulous for me – it has been enriching and educating and I think it is a very healthy sport for young kids. I see my own children now go to the squash club like the way I did and every time I take them there and they get to see the other kids and they interact with coaches, they are not just learning about squash. Squash is just the vehicle to give them a great morning and meet the other kids and I think that lots of sport are like that.
The more we can get squash out to people the better. And I suppose one way to do that is by raising the profile of the professional game. I think the PSA did well but I would like to see that raised as much as we can. The players within [the sport] getting more well known. It is all about the game growing really and getting out there. That is what I would love to see for it.
And you can add into that the Olympics. The Olympics could obviously drive [awareness]. I suppose those are the things I would love. It would be great to get two or three thousand people watching the game in a big space. It has been done before but not so much now. We can easily do it – it is just a matter of getting the tournaments to do it – promoting [the sport] to wider audiences really.
SU: And getting that game out to people who might not even have squash in their neighborhood or at a school near them.
JW: That’s right.
SU: Squash is also a great sport for exercise in general and you can set individual goals for yourself. And it keeps you grounded in something. I think it is a great sport that more people should get involved with.
JW: Like we met each other at one of the camps. Most people got on and we enjoyed the week together. You strike up relationships. Look what squash has given to me – I am sitting here talking to you on the phone. I wouldn’t have known you if it wasn’t for the game. This is what squash is about. It is a great sport for that. I think a lot of sports can do that but I think this is a particularly good sport for the social aspects.
SU: How did you pick up the nickname “The Marksman”?
JW: I am not sure. I guess it probably came from Joey*. You have to ask [Joey and fellow commentator, Paul Johnson] because they come up with the names. It all comes from them and we have nothing to do with it.
*SU note: Joey Barrington is a former squash player from England and one of the main commentators for PSA’s SquashTV)
SU: And then one day you just heard it as you go on court.
JW: I can’t remember when it came about now – I don’t know where I first heard it. I think it is quite flattering because he is using that name to describe me as someone who plays accurately. Something I am very flattered to hear. I have practiced those shots millions of times and hours and hours and hours over my life so I suppose it is a nice legacy. It takes a lot of effort – it is nice to hear that sort of thing. I’ll take it! But it’s all Joey or PJ.
SU: Do you ever hear other nicknames and think what is that? For example, they call Tarek Momen the “Viper”.
JW: Yeah, I was thinking about that one because I am with [Tarek] now. I suppose that is a bit more abstract. But I know what you mean – he is a bit deadly on the court. He can really cut through you on the squash court.
[Joey] loves the nicknames. It gives the sport a bit of an added edge. I know in some other sports they have done it. The play darts in England a lot and calling the players nicknames has really worked for them. And in snooker. [Nicknames] give a bit of extra stuff.
SU: And it appeals to younger players. They thin that’s so cool – I want a nickname like that.
JW: And they really do stick. Because every time now you come into a match or exhibition, [your nickname] will be mentioned. People like that sort of thing. It gives the game an added dimension – it defines the characters as well. You want the people to see the different characters, to see the French General [Grégory Gaultier], to see…
SU: …the Baby-Faced Assassin [Karim Abdel Gawad],
JW: Yes, it gives them an identity. We know who’s who.
SU: Finally, looking back on your career, what is your advice to juniors?
JW: It often depends where those juniors are. Are they very committed very early on and they want advice on how to get better. Or they might not be that interested in that and just want to play. It really depends where that junior is and the advice should be very carefully given because you don’t want to push kids into feeling something by advising them to do a certain thing. A lot of advice I would often give I would have to say is advice to parents because parents are pushing too much. I would often try to bring them in a bit because they are the ones that are asking how much should my kid be doing and how hard should they be training. They are talking to me about 14, 13 year olds and I say “Let them play different sports. Let them try to enjoy the game [like I was talking to you early on about]. Enjoy it with their own friends. Don’t put pressure on by putting them through hard sessions all the time.”
A simple piece of advice I also tell people is to watch the game in any way they can. If they can watch the best players play, if they can watch less good players play. See how they do things and copy it. Don’t be afraid to copy people and try to put your own stamp on it. Watching [the game] always inspires me hugely – even now after all these years. Try to watch the game and see how it is done. I would say -if you want to be really good, you have to work hard but I don’t often give that out too much because I am really into encouraging kids to work hard in the most fun ways. I don’t want to say to them [just] work hard because often it makes it seem like “I have to really do work that I don’t want to do.” And I don’t want them to feel that.
It is a bit of a mix between the parents and the kids and trying to find a way of practicing / working in a fun environment. Just get enjoyment from the game and don’t make it a chore too early. Once you are a professional, then, yes, it becomes your job and it does become hard and you are repeating day after day after day. And you don’t want that to happen too early. So kids just play hard if you want, play other sports, enjoy other parts of your life. If you love seeing your friends, go see your friends. Don’t just make it all about one thing, like squash. Have a variety of things going on.
SU: Everything in moderation.
JW: I think so. You look at a player like Ali Farag. An amazing player right now but he went and studied at Harvard. So you can do it. You can balance your whole life. But he probably admits now that [college] gave him a nice diversion away from his training and he had to think about both things and not just all about squash. Because if you are [thinking just about squash] for twenty years, it is going to kill you.
SU: James, thank you so much for talking to me today. I love hearing about all your experiences and all the advice. And good luck with the upcoming season.