James Relishing Role As ‘Hunted’ As He Rebuilds Career Following Injury Nightmare

By RJ Mitchell

Declan James believes that treading the boards on the PSA Challenger Tour will provide the perfect platform to re-launch his career after two years blighted by serious injury.

The former World No.15 had just recovered from a three-inch quad tear, which also impinged on his hip ligament, when an even bigger disaster hit – the rupturing of an achilles during a Surrey Cup fixture. An injury that consigned James to a length recovery programme that only saw him return to competitive squash last October.

Now with a string of tournaments on the second tier behind him, James has broken back inside the top-100 and is determined to climb even higher before the end of the season.

Yet displaying amazing candidness the former England No.1 has admitted that even in his prime, when a berth in the top-10 was within touching distance, he did not have the game to merit such an exalted ranking.

James celebrates a then career-best win over Marwan ElShorbagy

Now James has shared that the work he has put into overcome these gut-wrenching injuries with coach Nick Matthew have in fact made him a better all – rounded player: “Looking back, to be completely honest when I got to that ranking (World No.15) there were a lot of flaws in my game I needed to improve, so as crazy as it may sound I feel like I am a more complete player now than I was back then.

“Maybe the ranking doesn’t suggest that but I don’t look back at that period and think I was robbed as I’ve had tremendous experiences, I’ve had success at the Commonwealth Games and plenty of good moments and I did get close to that top-10 level, but I still felt like my game was way off consistently being top-10 in terms of the improvements I needed to make.

“So I’ve tried to make these in the last couple of years but the injuries have just stopped me showing these gains and that is why the goal is to continually improve.

“But I really feel I have these performances left in me and if I didn’t have the belief I could get back to that level I would retire tomorrow.

“So I have confidence and faith I can get there, although of course a little bit is out of my control in terms of health and my body, but I’m also grateful for all the years I have been able to play at a fairly respectable level.”

He continued: “I think I’ve developed my front court game. I’ve never had particularly soft hands to the front of the court, which was probably why I couldn’t bridge that gap to the very top, so I’ve worked a lot on my short game with my coach, also on my length game and stretching the court with plenty of solo practice.

“So I’ve done a lot of work on my base game and physically I feel very strong and now there is nothing like being battle-hardened and getting out and playing four matches back-to-back.

“So for the next few months the more matches I can get in like that the better.”

James is currently in Copenhagen this week competing in the $12k Odense Open in a graphic illustration of the hunger that still burns within him to climb the rankings once again.

The big problem now is that the hunter has become the hunted as he admitted: “They (the younger players) all come with their A-game when they play me, you see some of the names you are playing and the results might not be amazing but when they play me their level goes up and I respect that.

“These guys will want to beat me, I was in their position 10 years ago when I was a young guy and trying to take out the guys above me in the rankings or who had played at the higher level, so I totally get it.

“But I still feel like I’m still yet to see the prime of my career, so I’m not quite a veteran just yet.”

In this respect ‘The Dark Knight’ has no doubt that the quality and depth in the second tier is far higher than when he last competed there: “When I started 10 years ago these 10k, 15k, 20k events, well the level wasn’t as deep in the first, second rounds and quarters, really the strength in depth wasn’t there but full respect to these guys the level is higher now.

“Which also makes it harder to get back up the rankings, but I feel like I’m moving in the right direction and I wouldn’t be hanging around if I weren’t, that’s for sure.

“So it won’t happen overnight nor in three or four tournaments, as a year out is a long time and realistically it has been 18-months in the last two years that I’ve been out, as I had a serious injury before the Achilles back in 2022.

“18 months out of two years in a career is an awful long time to miss and I’m still finding my feet in terms of playing a full season, so I’m just trying to take it in my stride.”

But there is no doubt that James believes he is steadily building an upwardly mobile momentum and his motivation is almost palpable: “The motivation is there as much as it’s ever been but it’s hard and I never underestimated that as a year out is a long time.

“I’ve played five or six tournaments now since I started back and I feel quite good. I’ve had some decent results and some not so good and that is a part of it, but I think my level is good and I’m quite happy with that.

“So I’m looking forward to getting more matches under the belt as I think the match intensity was the hardest part to get back, which is why it has been good playing these lower events.

“I’ve been getting a large number of matches consecutively and I’ve not had that for a while. So that has been great and I feel like I’m continuing to improve.”

Of course James’ coach Nick Matthew famously achieved all his career highlights as a 30-something and, not turning 31 until next month, the Nottingham ace admits he has taken encouragement from this.

James said: “I take huge amounts of confidence in what Nick, with him being my coach, achieved in his 30s. Being World No.1, multiple World Champion, Commonwealth Golds.

“Also Jimbo (James Willstrop) as well in being a Commonwealth champion at 34 at the Gold Coast with one of the best performances I’ve seen in my life.

“So there is that window between 30 and 35 when a lot of guys produce their best squash, although when you go past that things can slow down, so I’m a realistic person and I’m not looking to be hanging around at 38 trying to be producing my best performances.

“So, I know I have a window over the next five years where I can still produce these performances, but there is a huge way to go back to play at that level.”

Nick Matthew and Greg Gaultier – two legends who continued to enjoy success into their mid 30s

Yet although patience is a virtue, the clock is ticking and James admitted: “I do want to get back into the top-50 as quickly as I can but that is easier said than done. I have discussed that with Nick and I want to be back in there so I’m playing the World Series events and the Platinum events.

“That is the top of the game and I want to be testing myself against the best but aside from that the goal is to be healthy, injury free and continuing to improve.

“So it’s good to have medium term goals there but you don’t want to have too many in terms of putting unnecessary pressure on yourself, I want to be back at World Series level as quickly as I can but my goal is always to improve as a player and make the most of it.

“You are a long time retired so I want to get the most out of my career I can. I am not going to be one of these guys who quits because it’s not going my way, as I’m not a quitter and never have been, so I’ll keep going until I feel like I can’t get anything more out of myself.”

James will not have to wait too long for his return to the big stage after he was awarded a wild card for the London Classic and he shared: “Fortunately Tim (Garner, Tournament Director) has given me the Wild Card for the London Classic which I’m incredibly grateful for and I can’t wait to get back into a major event like that.

“Win your first round and then it’s Alexandria Palace which will be a tremendous spectacle and then in April it’s back to the smaller events in Galway and Dublin.

“So I am around 100 in the world and my ranking is not what I need to make the major tournaments, but when I get to that 11-tournament run I would hope to be in there.”