What does the future hold for James Willstrop on the eve of his 40th birthday?

August 11 2023

James Willstrop, affectionately known as the 'The Marksman', is one of England’s greatest ever squash players and is still competing on the Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Tour with his remarkable racket skills enabling him to still consistently challenge the world's top players as he approaches the milestone of his 40th birthday later this month.

When it comes to an impeccable range of winning shots executed with unwavering precision, few can rival the prowess of James Willstrop.

A blend of unmatched shot diversity, coupled with his understated composure and modest demeanor on the squash court, positions James Willstrop as the favoured player to watch for countless fans. His peers readily extol his unparalleled shot-making prowess, as evidenced in endorsements by many of his rivals.

In a landscape dominated by social media, James Willstrop stands as a throwback to a simpler and, at times, more innocent era of squash. He has outlasted all contemporaries from that – what many consider – a golden age, including luminaries such as Nick Matthew, Ramy Ashour, and Gregory Gaultier.

Even at 39, Willstrop remains as captivating a presence on the court as the version that ascended to the world number one position a decade ago. His game has gracefully shifted towards greater reliance on his racket finesse, eschewing some of the physical demands.

It defies convention that he is not only holding his own against opponents a decade or more his junior, but thriving. Recent showcases include taking two 28-year-olds ranked above him to a full five-game contest at both the British Open and World Championships in April and May.

Each shot becomes a strategic investment, solidifying Willstrop's mastery of meticulous execution and offering a guiding light for younger professionals on how the game should be approached.

Willstrop showcased exceptional ball control from the earliest stages of his career, ensuring that identifying 40 standout shots for a highlights reel is hardly a challenge.

While his signature long drops and elegant windmill shots are his trademark, he's equally adept at outfoxing opponents with subtle deep holds, deceptive boasts, and delicately feathered cross-court nicks, a marked departure from the harder-hitting Egyptian style.

In truth, it's the bread-and-butter drop shots and strategic holds-to-length that define his repertoire, rather than elaborate triple feints.

As for the road ahead, James Willstrop is adopting a measured "week by week" approach.

Balancing intermittent appearances on the PSA World Tour with the responsibilities of carrying his late father's Pontefract legacy, his passion for acting, and his family commitments presents an intricate juggling act.

Professionally, Willstrop has transcended the necessity of competitive squash, and while the extent of his future involvement on the international squash circuit remains uncertain, fervent squash aficionados are fervently hoping that his summer training regimen bears fruit, allowing him to grace the court once more in the upcoming season and, quite possibly, beyond.

A true maestro on the squash court, James Willstrop proclaims that crafting a precise dying length shot is as much an art as executing a triple fake, underscoring his nuanced appreciation for the game's subtleties.

Renowned for his extravagant 'windmills' and sumptuous long drops, James Willstrop has also drawn attention to the often-overlooked elegance of his subtle holds to length, skilful changes of pace that have been a hallmark of his career.

Among his signature shots, the 'triple fake' stands out, famously baffling Ramy Ashour at the Tournament of Champions in 2010 and later bamboozling Karim Abdel Gawad in at the Grasshopper Cup in 2018. Reflecting on the latter, James Willstrop attributed the success of that pivotal exchange to a convergence of elements – a captivating rally, enhanced by memorable commentary from Joey Barrington and Nicky Muller, and the electric ambiance of the venue.

Yet, Willstrop is keen to emphasise that his repertoire boasts shots of equal caliber, though they might not garner the same viral attention on social media platforms such as YouTube. He cites the dying length shots, masterful in their execution but more subtle in their impact, as the choice of discerning squash aficionados.

Notably, a another reaction volley that left Ramy Ashour flabbergasted, holds a special place in his memory. James Willstrop fondly recalled their clash in Chicago, an underappreciated gem that showcased exceptional quality.

As he reminisces on his career's milestones, James Willstrop vividly recalls his 2018 Commonwealth Games Gold Medal victory against Paul Coll and the 2011 showdown with Gregory Gaultier that propelled him to the pinnacle of world rankings. The latter, featuring a marathon 57-minute first game, serves as a testament to his unwavering determination.

Yet, the monumental battle at the 2010 Canary Wharf Squash Classic against his arch-rival Nick Matthew looms large as one of his most epic encounters. Lasting 127 minutes, it epitomised the essence of squash as an intense test of endurance, skill, and agility that can reduce even the greatest players to a state of near-collapse. Willstrop acknowledges the humbling nature of the sport, asserting its perpetual allure lies in this very challenge.

With a career spanning 731 matches and 246 tournaments on the PSA World Tour, James Willstrop is a seasoned campaigner. However, like a squash version of Roger Federer, he has become discerningly selective in his appearances, entering just nine tournaments last season. As he approaches the age of 40, he acknowledges the need to strike a balance between his enduring passion for squash and the toll it exacts on his body.

Juggling his pursuits, including coaching and acting, has allowed him to cultivate a multifaceted perspective that enhances his game. Acting, in particular, has proven surprisingly symbiotic with his squash performance, affording him a mental respite that benefits his play on the court.

The question on many fans' minds is whether Willstrop will continue to grace the squash arena. Age remains an arbitrary benchmark for the seasoned player, who underscores that as long as he feels physically able and passionate, the prospect of future appearances remains a tantalising possibility. With an eye on selective training over the summer and a receptive body, James Willstrop hints at the potential for more exhilarating moments on the squash court.