Exclusive by RJ Mitchell
It is one of those arguments that may rage whenever squash fans chat over the sport they love: ‘just who is the greatest player never to have won a world title?’ and possibly one that intensifies whenever the PSA World Championships are held.
With the 2018-2019 PSA World Championships presented by The Walter Family, just 24 hours away from starting in Chicago there are a few outstanding players who must feature in any such conversation.
The 1970s saw Pakistani ace Qamar Zaman’s dreams killed in three finals between 1977 and 1980 by the immortal Geoff Hunt.
Not surprisingly, Australian eighties legend Chris Dittmar, having finished runner-up at the World Championship five times between 1983 and 1992, has a seriously strong case.
Some may also argue for Egypt’s former World No.2 Ahmed Barada, who was runner-up in 1999, only to have his career effectively ended by a knife attack a year later, when he was stabbed in the back at just 23 years-old.
But one thing is for sure, England’s former World No.1 and 2010 runner-up James Willstrop must also take a seat at the table occupied by these legends of the game who cruelly fall under the category of the ‘nearly men’.
Yet, speaking on the eve of the 2018-2019 World Championships, ‘The Marksman’, who has just claimed his third British Nationals title, has pronounced himself in “fine fettle” and “still in with a shout” as he sets his sights on what arguably, at 35 years-old, could be his last serious tilt at the game’s global title.
James Willstrop (right) celebrates his 2019 British Nationals title with women's champion Tesni Evans (left)
“I am at a stage in my career where I have things fairly balanced and in perspective. In the past, when I was at the top, I would really put pressure on myself to perform and produce the results. Now I am in a good place, not on edge anymore. Basically, it isn't the end of the world if I don't perform and the results don't go my way as was the case say 10 years ago,” revealed Willstrop.
He continued: “Not having won the Worlds, I don't think I would describe it as a regret, that is too strong. I have given it my best, given it everything and squash has given me a great life, but I'm not finished yet!
“I feel very relaxed about what I'm doing and I don't see the Worlds as a case of unfinished business. I'm looking forward to Chicago, and I have perspective on where I am in terms of my career, my expectancy. I certainly don't feel the pressure I did when I was World No.1.
“What I will say is that I'm in decent fettle both physically and mentally, and the way I feel at present, this will not be my last worlds. I will qualify that, as at 35 things can change physically, but right now my body and mind are good, the physios are pleased with where I am, and my appetite for squash is still very much there.”
The England No.1 concluded: “So although you can't make any predictions about how you will be in a year's time, given a fair wind, I will still be competing and that's probably because I love this game.
“But I think we are in for a fascinating fortnight of squash and I plan to hang around for as long as possible because I'm still in with a shout!”
There are few surprises when it comes to who The Marksman has pencilled in at the top of his hit list in Chicago's Union Station over the next week.
“Obviously, you look at the draw and the rankings or seedings don't lie. Mohamed and Ali are at No.1 and No.2 because of their consistency when it mattered most in the big tournaments. That said, I think there is a very strong group below them who can, on any given day, challenge and beat them,” said Willstrop.
James Willstrop (right) v Mohamed ElShorbagy (left) during the 2015 World Championships
He continued: “You look at the likes of Simon Rösner, who earlier this year reached his highest ranking of World No.3 and has proven he can win the biggest tournaments like last year's ToC (Tournament of Champions), Tarek Momen, Miguel Rodriguez, who is the current British Open Champion and Diego Elias, who has beaten ElShorbagy already this season, and they are all dangerous.
“Paul Coll is another who is in there and whom I recently had first-hand experience of when he beat me in the final at the Edinburgh Sports Club. Physically, he is very dynamic and strong, but is he ready to win a top tier tournament yet and, if so, why not now?
“Possibly the biggest danger to the top two is Karim Abdel Gawad. I love watching him, and he is absolute class. He has won the world title before and in December, back at his best, he took out ElShorbagy, Farag and Momen in the same tournament at the Black Ball Open. If he comes into this in good shape, Karim is the real threat.
“But as I said, if I can play my way in and keep taking care of all the details, I still believe that on my game and on my day, I can hurt the very best.”
Willstrop faces a stiff first round test of his evergreen credentials when he faces World No.45 Malaysian Ivan Yuen.
It is an encounter The Marksman has clearly been keeping his powder dry for: “Ivan is very athletic, fit and also physically strong and over the last couple of days since I have arrived in Chicago on Thursday, I've been learning a bit more about his game. But What really matters is that I produce my best squash, and that is where all the experience comes in,” said Willstrop.
The former World No.1 added: “Clearly I might be a few places above Ivan in terms of the rankings, but I know that I am equally capable of not playing well as [he is] of playing well. If I don't get it right, it will be a tough and draining day at the office.
“But winning the British National Squash Championship and having to defeat a quality player like Daryl Selby, whom I have a great deal of respect for, has certainly given me a very strong base from which to start my World Championship campaign.”