By RJ Mitchell
Nick Matthew believes that Declan James’ performances at the AJ Bell England Squash Championship can provide the perfect platform for the Nottingham ace to realise his full potential on the PSA World Tour as the 27-year-old reaches his prime squash years.
The Dark Knight claimed the title after a gripping 64-minute triumph in last weekend’s final, which hinged on a tense fourth game tie-break, in which opponent George Parker’s fiery temper ultimately undid him and swung the balance of a tight contest firmly James’ way.
Yet with the newly crowned English champion set to turn 28 in April and now approaching his peak years, three-time former world champion Matthew, who also coaches James, has admitted it is time for his man to make hay.
Matthew also had words of encouragement for beaten finalist Parker while ‘The Wolf’ believes the surge of another of his prodigies Nick Wall, who accounted for former World No.1 James Willstrop in what was the biggest shock of the championship en route to a semi-final slot, has hinted at the 19-year-old’s huge promise.
“Declan is his own man; he is incredibly mature and knows what he wants to do, and I have been trying to guide him in a few areas and add to what he has already got but the main thing is that winning is a habit and this has been a good confidence builder for Dec,” he said.
“At the same time, he is not the type of person who will get carried away with winning the English Championships and knows that it isn’t a Platinum PSA event, so he is very level headed. But regarding the top ten level he is aiming at then it’s back to work this week and the build up to the Black Ball Open.
“Declan has a good team behind him with England Squash, his strength and conditioning coach plus me and we have mapped out a programme for him and he will follow that. Any player at around 27 or 28 then they know it is the time you are coming into the peak of your career and it is about putting the right amount of pressure on yourself to achieve that.
“You can’t say you are 22 and building for the future, the time is now, but at the same time you don’t want to put too much on yourself, everything is about finding the right balance in terms of living for the now but not putting too much pressure on that now. Declan knows that, and he knows he is at his best when he is mentally relaxed but there is no question he is coming into his prime now.”
As the former World No.1 admitted with James turning his sights on next month’s Black Ball Open, winning is a good habit to be back in.
“Getting that run of matches for Dec, which is a problem for anyone at the moment, was a big plus,” Matthew said.
“We are trying to replicate it in training where we have one day in the week where we are having really high-quality practise matches and have instigated a challenge ladder while also instigating matches at other clubs who have elite access as well. Obviously, it’s tough as you can’t replicate the reality of a tournament and the pressures involved.
“It has been frustrating for Declan as he had played well in the last PSA event in December (Black Ball Open) but drew one of the top guys in Diego Elias and it’s hard when you travel, get there three days before and then you have one match, and have the travel back after over that period of eight to 10 days and that’s tough.
“So, you could see the confidence growing by getting into these little subtleties that you almost forget that come with match play. How you manage your energies, how you prepare, switch off and recover.
“With another player that I coach, Greg Lobban, before he had his best tournament last season at Canary Wharf, he went to Hong Kong and won a 30k and got four matches in a row and took that into Canary Wharf, so you just can’t underestimate the power of getting matches under your belt.”
For Leicestershire’s Parker, who had become increasingly competitive at the apex end of the PSA World Tour before the Christmas break in extending Paul Coll and Mohamed ElShorbagy to four games at the Egyptian Open and Qatar Classic competitions, Matthew believes maturity can finally help him realise his undoubted potential.
“Credit to George where its due. Everyone knows he’s had those issues over the years and to be fair to George you couldn’t meet a nicer person off the court. But he can let his frustrations on the court boil over and we know that, but I think he isn’t going to go with where he was before, with letting these frustrations get to him and then getting it completely right all the time, yet there are strong signs that he is maturing for sure over the last few months,” ‘the Wolf’ explained.
George Parker in the final of the AJ Bell England Squash Championships
“So, you have to say George is progressing there and I think that the quality of three games in the final against Dec were good and also that it was a really good quality five game match against Nick (Wall) in the semis, so fair play to George there were a lot of positives there for him to build on.”
When it comes to the tournament’s surprise packet, World No.134 Nick Wall, Matthew was delighted that his young charge suffered no drop-off after his giant slaying of former World No.1 Willstrop in the pool stages to force his way through to the last four.
“I think what pleased me most for Nick was that not only did he beat James [Willstrop] and have a purple patch, but I was almost happier with how he played against George [Parker] in the semis.
“There are no corners you are going to take, and nothing is easy against a player like George, so I felt like Nick backed up well mentally against him. On top of that it was the same thing for Nick, even although he didn’t make the final, I tried to say to him you need to adopt the attitude that you are there to win matches consecutively.”
Matthew also had respectful kind words for Willstrop, who was, of course one the greatest rivals of his own garlanded career, with the proud Yorkshireman putting his shock defeat by Wall behind him to finish fifth with a battling defeat of Patrick Rooney in a riveting encounter.
“All right it didn’t quite work out for James, but it was noticeable that after losing to Nick in the group stages he still took great pride in his performance in the 5/6th play-off and won that, which is testament to his professionalism.
“No one would have criticised him for saying: ‘Well I’m just going to treat this like an exhibition, and it doesn’t really matter.’ But James knew the importance of that, it wasn’t just about winning it was about getting as many hard matches as he could, and he really showed up in that respect in beating Patrick [Rooney].”
Matthew had no doubt about the importance of the tournament and felt a hearty vote of thanks should be recorded to England Squash and sponsors AJBell in putting on a such a high-quality tournaments in such trying times.
“100% a big pat on the back to England Squash and AJ Bell for putting it all together, it has been fantastic to have run the tournament in these trying times,” he added.
“For me there were two categories of players and both benefitted. The slightly more senior players who got an opportunity to get match hardened for The Black Ball to come next month, so for Declan, James and SJ [Perry] in the ladies, it was invaluable in that respect.
“For the younger players like Georgina [Kennedy] Jazz Hutton and for the boys like Nick Wall and Charlie Lee, who wasn’t too far away, then I think it was a good that those youngsters got an opportunity as those 10k events they need to be playing in aren’t happening yet.
“Of course, on the flip side Nick is desperate to play next week and build on his run to the semis but he doesn’t know when he will get that chance, so it’s tough for the younger players.”