Wednesday, February 1, 2012

James Willstrop's Squash Book, "Shot and Ghost..." -- A Review

Wow! For those of you who like to know the inner workings of the lives of professional athletes, this is a great read, a diary in the life of a professional squash player. It is right up there with my favorite squash books, Shattered by Peter Marshall, and, Murder on the Squash Court by Jonah Barrington. It is all the more special because James Willstrop, current number 1 in the world, is a very gifted writer (or at least storyteller if his collaborator Ralph Gilmour did much of the writing). Wilstrop is clever, ironic and sometimes outright funny. He can also be very poignant, especially in the passages about his squash-iconic-father, Malcolm (“Malc”). I can hear my own son describe me to someone the same way as Willstrop describes his own father's difficult personality. Just the other day my son described me as a jerk that just happens to help people, go figure. “Jerk” wasn't his exact word more like that reference to one of our less than public orifices.

No doubt squash players who have competed at any club, regional or national as well as professional level with bask in the narrative of this book. These guys who play at the highest level of their sport have days when they hate the sport, when they don't want to train, bicker, complain, feel sore, insecure and even eat a big bowl of cereal for breakfast as they head for a tough training session.

I was never a big fan of Willstrop's game, I confess, until I watched a match between him and I think Darwish or one of the Egyptians and my son pointed out just how devastating Willstrop is especially when attacking to the front courty. This, all from a player at 6'4 the tallest on the tour! When he won the Tournament of Champions in 2011, a major win for him, he spent 30 minutes thanking everyone from his father to the milkman for his success. I found his litany annoying; after having read his book I feel a bit bad for those feelings because it is just the way Willstrop is. He utilizes so many people in his success: nutritionist, coach, trainers, and masseuse -- whatever it takes to bring out the best in his body, mind and soul. And the quote he uses might be remembered by anyone aspiring to such accomplishments: "It's amazing just what can be achieved when nobody cares who takes glory."

In an age of fist pumping, or the zealous behavior of Shorbagy and Tom Richards gestures at this year’s TOC, Willstrop is a gracious gentleman and sportsman. His father emphasized proper court demeanor as much as anthing. Often accused of being too nice and lacking that acerbic edge of the so called "wunderkinds" of squash, he is much more, he is confident and knows himself very well, he goes with the flow until it becomes time to question where the flow leads him. You have the sense that he was raised properly with great appreciation for his gifts as an athlete and the gifts of others as well. He is rarely critical of a person, outright, maybe critical of behavior or character traits, especially exhibited towards his ongoing perceived feud with fellow squash great and countryman Nick Matthew.

In the end, Willstrop, as great an athlete as he is at the pinnacle of his success, is simply human. Nowhere do you have a sense of this dichotomy between supreme athlete and simple human being than his entries about his "mum". Very moving passages without being maudlin. For any sports fan, squash enthusiast, aspiring professional squash player this is a great read and I only hope we can come to expect more from Willstrop both in terms of his wonderful prose and his squash game as well. I always contend that the greatest gift a professional player can make to the game, aside from his or her actual play, is a documented history of their game and how they played it and lived it in their time.

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1 comment:

kamekish said...

It is great that Willstrop did this for England. It is not easy to bring the best of an individual. It requires courage, knowledge and access to opportunities. And you rightly said, "He utilizes so many people in his success: nutritionist, coach, trainers, and masseuse -- whatever it takes to bring out the best in his body, mind and soul."

As a human this is what we all should keep trying, bringing the best in our mind, body and soul.

Hope some one from East will also be able to achieve this ever.