Written by RJ Mitchell
Declan James believes that the installation of six-time major winner Nick Matthew as his new coach can help him challenge for a place in the top ten of the PSA World Tour rankings, while also helping him reclaim his England No.1 status.
The Dark Knight reached a career high of World No.15 in May 2019 when he appeared set to kick on into the game’s elite echelons, but a season of under achievement saw him not only fall back to his current World No.23 status, but also lose his position at the summit of the English game.
However, a discussion with former World No.1 Nick Matthew at the end of 2019 triggered a hook up that started to show early promise. That promise was confirmed in a straight sets dispatch of the man who succeeded him as England No.1 Adrian Waller, at the St James’s Place Canary Wharf Classic, in March and pointed to the regaining of that lost momentum, just before the COVID-19 pandemic put the PSA World Tour into an enforced suspension.
The Nottingham-born ace admits that Matthew’s attention to detail has also helped him discern a fatal flaw in his training patterns last summer that helped undo so much of the good work which had seen him claim his 13th PSA title, when he defeated former World No.1 James Willstrop at the Open International de Squash de Nantes the previous year and seemed to suggest an all out assault on the top ten was imminent.
Now the ‘Dark Knight’ says he will be ready to joust with the best once again after hearing the call of ‘The Wolf’.
“I am 27-years-old now and I believe my best years are very much ahead of me and I am not at my peak. Obviously when the tour gets back up the first target is to get back in the top 20 and then to really kick on, try and threaten and then break into the top ten,” said James.
“I now think I am very much in the right place to achieve that and I think a big part of that is getting the balance of my workload correct. Last summer, I think I spent too much time on physicality and fitness and perhaps I did neglect my technical work and maybe went away from my squash slightly.
“So, it has been great to get back on court and work on my basics, start implementing the slight changes that Nick has asked for and to be looking forward to continue to make these adjustments.
“I am really pleased with where I am and in terms of the clarity Nick has brought to the process and I firmly believe that when we do get back to competitive squash my preparation will provide me with the perfect foundations to pursue my targets successfully.
“I had a chat with Nick at the end of last year and we managed to do a bit of work together early on this year and straight away I was extremely impressed by his attention to detail. He definitely has the same all-embracing approach to his coaching as he did towards his playing and he was honest in terms of the aspects of my game that we needed to work on and improve.
“Obviously I’ve known Nick since I was a kid and he was always very encouraging to me and when I sat down with him to explore working with him it didn’t take him long to impress me with his view of things and what he felt he could do to get me back up the rankings. But to get back up inside the top 20, hopefully above and stay there, it’s vital I make these improvements.”
When it comes to prioritising, it is clear that for the 27-year-old achieving his career goal of top ten status will also help James regain national pride.
“Obviously being England No.1 does matter but it is not everything. There is no use being the national No.1 if you are still outside the top 20 for instance,” explained the ‘Dark Knight’.
James (left) in action against Ali Farag at Canary Wharf
“From my perspective what is really important is to get inside that top ten and in doing so knowing that I have a fairly good chance of being the top Englishman again. I think sometimes the media put more emphasis on being England No.1 than maybe is merited, although of course we have had some great number ones, like Nick and James [Willstrop].
“But these guys were also No.1 in the world and I think the England No.1 should be in the top ten minimum and so that is my real priority and focus, get the first and the second will follow.”
Reviewing the five month period of the PSA World Tour’s suspension James has admitted he has been happy to hit the road as he awaited a return to court date.
“I can’t complain about the lockdown and suspension, I felt I pretty much made the best of it that I could. I worked extremely hard away from the court and one of the main things I got into was bike work,” he added.
“I really got out there on the road and clocked the miles up and I’m lucky in that I have friends who are pretty serious cyclists and we made it up onto the Derbyshire Dales and also out and around my native Nottinghamshire which is a bit flatter.
“But certainly in Derbyshire out on the dales and in the Peak District it was lung-bursting stuff and I really felt there were benefits in terms of the whole oxygen debt aspect but while you are out on your bike you are enjoying fresh air and a chance to get a different perspective of things.
“Taking that all into account and the fact the weather wasn’t too bad it was great spiritually to be out there in the glorious English countryside and be working hard in good company. Of course, I did do plenty of running and some weights but definitely the cycling was something I really enjoyed and found beneficial.”
James also shared some interesting innovations he made in order to bring court specific movement, racket and ball work into his suspension training regimen.
“It has been important to think outside the box and to that extent I have ghosted in an underground car park, hit squash balls against a brick wall and used drain pipes as targets!” he revealed.
“But the important thing has been not to use the suspension as an excuse not to be positive and to work hard and use your brain to improvise when it has been required. I know that I have ground to reclaim and momentum to regain and I am determined and very motivated to achieve that.
“In this respect the suspension has given me the opportunity to refocus, take on board what Nick has been telling me and I am just very hungry to get back out there and compete again. Basically, I feel that everything is falling into place and I would say that right now I am more motivated than I have ever been.”