Commonwealth Games: English in squash grudge match

Nick Matthew: Relentless. Picture: Getty
Nick Matthew: Relentless. Picture: Getty
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Nick Matthew and James Willstrop walked into the glass cube at Scotstoun with rackets in hand but it seemed an inappropriate weapon of choice. Gladiators, according to legend, settle their scores with spears and brute strength with only the strongest surviving. And for 99 minutes, the English combatants traded blows in their quest for immortality as Scotstoun was turned into a coliseum.

With every other significant title already secured at the age of 34, Matthew was relentlessly combative, claiming an 11-9, 8-11, 11-5, 6-11, 11-5 victory that floored his rival and snared the laurels of Commonwealth gold. At the end, there was a moment, but only one, in which their mutual antipathy was set aside and respect was duly, and rightly, exchanged. The Yorkshiremen will never be friends, just the best of enemies. It is a dynamic which, you sense, brings out the best in both.

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“And the worst,” the champion declared. “Because I can’t play good squash against him. All I could do is just whack it to the back because he’s following me everywhere. If this was a boxing fight, they probably would have stopped it. My corner would have thrown in the towel, some of the rallies he had me on. But I managed to dig in.”

Not once did the three-time world champion lose sight of his ambition, not even amid the early loss of a contact lens that sparked a show of frustration from his long-time foe. It was a minor impediment, considering that five weeks ago he was lying on the operating table as a surgeon repaired his knee. Briefly, it left his Glasgow plans uncertain but it would take more than a minor operation to thwart his bid. “I know that I’m a stubborn so and so,” he confirmed. More so, when there is incentive to quickly heal.

Willstrop had shrugged off his own ailments to steel himself for this bout. The pair have faced off so many times that familiarity has only added to their contempt. An attempt to forge links by pairing the duo in the doubles at the Melbourne Games of 2006 proved ill-fated. A joint appearance on Chris Evans’ radio show, in which the two traded barbs, merely added an extra coating of frost.

“It’s a little bit strained,” Willstrop acknowledged. “We’re just very different. But that’s fine. We’ve been together in teams for years and in world finals, Commonwealth finals. We have to deal with each other a lot. It’s not like we go around hitting each other with cricket bats. We’re civil. It’s fine.”

On the court, Matthew has habitually held sway. Briefly, in the fourth game, Willstrop appeared to have gained some precious momentum, forcing his frequent nemesis to chase back and forth. “I felt like I never had one bit of control in the whole match,” the former revealed. “James had me under so much pressure. It was a testament to my fighting ability that I stuck in there because it wasn’t the prettiest I’ve every played.”

Right to the end, they traded blows until the slaying arrived. On the second match ball, Willstrop threw his racket in desperation but his fight was done. “I exhausted Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,” Matthew acknowledged. “I think I was on about Z at the end but it worked.”

In a few weeks’ time, he will become a father for the first time. His wife Esme sat ringside with their unborn daughter. “She was cheering for me,” he said. “She was doing cartwheels in her stomach. She was kicking her. She knew Daddy was in trouble so she was willing me on. I was doing it for her.”

Peter Barker claimed bronze with victory over India’s Saurav Ghosal while a fatigued Kevin Moran lost to Canada’s Shawn Delierre 11-9, 11-9, 2-11, 11-8 in the men’s classic plate final. “My body was still broken a bit after Sunday,” said the Scot who will now focus on the mixed doubles, which starts tomorrow.

Malaysia’s Nicol David, the world number one, picked apart England’s Laura Massaro, to claim the women’s singles gold 12-10, 11-2, 11-5. “I’m disappointed it was 3-0 and it wasn’t really that close after the first,” said Massaro. “I don’t know if I’d be less disappointed if it was 12-10 in the fifth. Who knows? It’s still a silver medal. My goal the whole time was to get a medal. I never put a colour on it. And a silver is about what I deserve.”

New Zealand’s Joelle King condemned England’s Alison Waters to fourth place for the second successive Games with a straight sets win in the bronze play-off.


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