James Focused On ‘Tunnel Vision’

By RJ Mitchell

There comes a moment in any comeback when the acid test arrives and for Declan James that will come in the first round of the GillenMarkets London Squash Classic tomorrow afternoon.

Once ranked as high as World No.15, the Englishman’s career has been ravaged by injury during the past two seasons, with a three-inch quad tear – which also impinged on his hip ligament – followed up by the injury all squash players fear most, the rupturing of an Achilles.

But James is made of stern stuff and while others may have shrugged their shoulders and accepted that their best was firmly behind them, the big man from Nottingham has decided to seize the day and put every ounce of his being into reclaiming his previous status, while citing a five year window between 30 and 35 as the perfect time to launch a second coming.

Victory in the Odense Open earlier this month took him back to World No.76 and now courtesy of a wildcard from London Classic tournament director Tim Garner, the 30 year-old has the chance to mix it with the big boys once again, with World No.19 Mohamed ElSherbini awaiting him in a fascinating first round encounter tomorrow night at Coolhurst Tennis & Squash Club.

It will be the first time the former England No.1 has met a member of the top-20 since flamboyant Frenchman Baptiste Masotti, who ironically awaits in round two, dispatched him in straight sets last October in France.

But the Dark Knight admits he’s keeping his focus squarely on the job at hand as he swaps the Challenger Tour to joust on the hallowed boards of a PSA World Tour Gold event.

“I’m still basically looking to improve and put a good performance in and one result isn’t going to change my life anytime soon,” he said. “So it’s about doing the things on court that are going to get me to that level and that won’t happen in one match, so it is about taking on what Nick (Matthew, coach) and I have been working on, on the training court and building on that in the match court tomorrow night.

“This is where I want to be but I also have to accept it is a big jump up in level, so you have to leave your previous results at the door a bit, in respect of going up a level to play a guy in the top-20 like Mohamed.

“So I’m feeling great, it’s a massive opportunity to be back playing a tournament of this level again and I owe a big thank you to Tim (Garner, Tournament Director) for giving me the wildcard and the opportunity to get back on court with these guys.

“So it will be super tough but I’m really looking forward to testing myself and seeing where my game is.”

James after winning the Odense Open last week
James with the Odense Open trophy

It is an interesting sub plot of the tussle to see if the fact James has been used to grinding it on the Challenger Tour on ‘traditional courts’, while ElSherbini is a consolidated member of the elite who ply their trade on the PSA’s state of the art glass show courts, will make an impact.

Yet as James admits it is a level up from his recent outings and as such the ultimate test of whether his game, just like his physicality, is once more in rude health: “For sure I’m trying to treat it like any other tournament I go into. You want to win every match you play and they are all important, but of course the London Classic is a bigger event than those I have been playing.

“So you have the opportunity with SQUASHTV, the big venue and it brings with it an extra bit of glamour, but I know I’ve played matches of this level on this kind of stage before, so it’s nothing new for me.

“But I haven’t done it for some time now and I just need to relish it.”

Declan James (left) with James Willstrop, Commonwealth Games Doubles Gold Medal Winners

The duo have met on one previous occasion, which came at the Tournament of Champions so long ago it is no longer listed on their PSA Head-to-Head encounters, so although James was victorious it’s relevance as a barometer is lost in the mists of time.

With a final training session with guru Matthew completed, what impresses in conversation with the man from Nottingham is his unswerving adherence to the mantra of trusting in the process and his tunnel vision to improve his game to a technical level that will take him beyond what it was before the injuries struck.

“It’s a continued process with lots of work in terms of taking the ball into the front of the court, which is a continual theme, softening the hands a bit and making the court bigger.

“I have had a couple of good weeks on the training court and completed good work with Nick, so I feel good and my game is in a positive place.

“On the match court with the pressure of the bright lights it’s a bit different, but I am looking forward to putting myself under pressure and seeing what level I can produce.

“My body is also great, I’m moving well and in a good place, so being healthy and in a good spot is something I’m grateful for.”

“It’s got to be one match at a time,” he added. “You can be aware of what is ahead and then you start second guessing on what is a good draw and then these matches don’t go the way you think they will.

“At this level shocks and surprises do happen, so it is one match at a time, there is a great reward if I manage to win in terms of playing at Alexandra Palace, but you have to leave that to one side and focus on the performance.

“Really it’s got to be a case of tunnel vision.”