NANTES ON UK TIME (english version)Événements 05/09
France and England have a long-term rivalry in many sports (for example in rugby with the Crunch) and that’s the case in squash. The two countries have met 16 times in the European Team Championships finals since 2000, and after having lost their crown to the French for the first time in 2015, the England team set the record straight last May in Poland. Three members of the squad (Daryl Selby, Tom Richards and Chris Simpson) will be in Nantes this week, as well as Declan James who was a reserve. Surely their goal will be to conquer the title on their rivals ground…
He will be the one to watch in this Open International de Nantes. Even though he was a relatively late comer (at 22 years old, after university), Daryl Selby has been an iconic figure of the PSA World Tour for many years: except in May 2016 when he dropped to #21, he has belonged to the world top 20 for seven years. Having played 39 matches for his national team, he has been part of many fierce battles between England and France. When asked about his most striking memory about France, he was quick to answer: “World Championships in Mulhouse (in 2013) immediately comes to mind, we as the England team had an amazing week (obviously winning helped!) and the hospitality we received from the French people was truly amazing. After we beat the French team in the semis we went to eat at the venue at about 2am and received a standing ovation from all the French fans. This really showed how respectful squash fans are and meant a lot to us.” The following day, he played one the finest matches in his career in the finals, beating Egypt’s Tarek Momen in straight games and therefore greatly contributing to the World Champion title. Selby has played a lot of team sports before he embraced squash, especially cricket and football (he’s a big Liverpool fan), and has won about every team event that exists in the world of squash. "I'm not sure I necessarily play better in team events, it's just that when other people are relying on your performance you tend to find that extra gear from somewhere. I think I enjoy sharing victories with other people more than I do enjoying the experience by myself.”
Crédit photo : www.squashmad.com
“The hospitality we received from the French people at the World Championships in Mulhouse was truly amazing.”
33-year-old Selby, whose family is very involved in squash (his father Paul is one of his coaches, his sister Lauren was #34 in the world and his brother Elliot also plays on the tour although he’s had more success in racketball) has never played a PSA event in France. This Open of Nantes will also be his first 25,000 $ outside of the UK for a few years. “My last tournament win was in 2012 in the Grasshopper Cup in Zurich which actually was also my last 25k. I chose Nantes because I heard lots of good things about this tournament, and I am desperate to try and add another PSA title as it’s been too long!” To do so, he will not only have to live up to his seeding but also probably defeat some fellow Englishmen (although most of them are on the opposite side of the draw). “Yes the draw is full of English players, and being the number 1 seed does bring a different type of pressure. But I enjoy that pressure and hopefully I can perform as I normally do in these cases.” A title in Nantes would certainly be a good start for 2016-2017, while he judges that the past season was "a little up and down for me. I played some really good first round matches in the big tournaments but didn't follow them up in the last 16. I've not played in Hong Kong because I've just moved house so that's taken up a bit of my time over the summer. I'm definitely still focused on rankings and would love to push back towards the top 10 this season.”
For French squash, the name of Chris Simpson sounds like history: after countless runner-up finishes behind their long-term rivals, Lucas Serme brought the first title to his country by taking a game to him in the deciding match of the European Team Championships finals in 2015. It was particularly harsh for the man from Guernsey, because not only it was his first appearance in the England team but also he’s never lost a match in this event. But Simpson is not the kind of guy who puts his head down, and he had his revenge against Serme in the 2016 ETC last May, contributing to the return of England at the top of the tree. Patience is certainly one of his main assets, on court as well as in his career: he has been steadily climbing up the rankings since his PSA debut in 2005, although he wanted to “break into the top 16 last year and didn’t reach this goal (he ended the season at #22). I am not happy with my rankings and it will be my priority in 2016-2017. I want to start to reach the quarter finals of World Series events, which I have been unable to do so far. Nevertheless, I was happy with my standard of play, and I think it was my best season yet in terms of results. I had my biggest results in the first round of tournaments, which meant my ranking didn't benefit as much as it could have.”
“It is a strong tournament in Nantes, where almost anyone can win.”
To achieve his goals, Simpson works very hard on improving every aspect of his game. “I want to continue to improve my game and add more "weapons". I have worked very hard on this over the summer.” We have been able to get a look at these new weapons in the first round of the Hong Kong Open, although he lost in the first round to world number 1 Mohamed El Shorbagy. “I was happy with how I played against him. There are many things I have been working on, and the backhand drop is one of them.” His second tournament of the season will be Nantes, and he chose this event for several reasons. “At the start of the season it can be hard to get into match mode after a long summer of training. I like to start with a tournament I am aiming to win, to get a few matches under my belt and aiming to gain some confidence. It is a strong tournament in Nantes, where almost anyone can win, so it will be good to see where my game is at after the summer.”
Tom Richards may not have very good memories of the last PSA tournament he played in France. In 2010, he was seed number 2 in the Internationaux de France in Bordeaux, but was taken out in the first round by a qualifier named Borja Golan (outside the top 100 but who was top 10 a few months earlier before a serious injury). “It's a shame that there aren't many more events in France as there are so many French players who are playing extremely well at the moment, and obviously with Gaultier you would expect there to be great interest. I look to play one or two 25ks a year as I like to play a mixture of events. From what I've heard Nantes was a fantastic event last year so it was an easy decision to play, the short travel time was also very welcome! Hopefully Nantes can be a start of things to come in France!” He should also enjoy the scenery in the Cité des Congrès, as he calls himself a “big music fan. I spend a lot of time listening to all sorts of stuff and going to gigs. I am also into football and an Arsenal fan, but my main sporting love is cricket though and I can easily watch all 5 days of a test match. But I imagine that won't translate well in France!” Richards will be feeling at home this week though, being in the very English speaking part of the draw. “I like to look at who I'm playing and who else is playing so I did notice that there were a few English guys in there! Saying that it is a very strong field with plenty of people who will be looking to win the event and for that reason it would be very satisfying to win.” Especially since he hasn’t won a tournament since 2013 (and his victory in Montreal over Thierry Lincou, one of the highlights of his career).
“I've heard Nantes was a fantastic event last year so it was an easy decision to play.”
One of the reasons is that Richards has had a few injury-plagued seasons, although 2015-2016 wasn’t one of them. “I was reasonably happy with my performances last season. I was playing a good level throughout and when given the opportunity against players in the 10-20 world ranking bracket I felt I took them well (especially against Nikki Mueller in the US Open and Ryan Cuskelly in Colombia). I was a little disappointed not to beat a top 10 player but I had a couple of good performances and some tough draws! Staying fit and healthy was very important for me, it was pleasing to get through the season with no significant problems.” Now he hopes to go one step further, after having been close in the past to make the last 8 of a World Series event a couple of times. Is the best yet to come for the 30 year-old? “I'm reluctant to set ranking targets as this is tough to control but my main goals are to beat top 10 players and win squash matches! I've just had my longest pre season as a professional and have worked extremely hard over the summer both on my physicality and squash, so I am looking to transfer this in to the new season. I would love to reach the later stages of World Series events, I feel there's plenty of opportunities at the moment so if I play to my capabilities then I'm sure I can achieve this.” He wasn’t able to achieve this goal in the first major tournament of the season in Hong Kong, where he lost to James Willstrop in the first round. This event was the stage of yet another comeback from Ramy Ashour, whom Richards has known since the juniors (he lost to the Egyptian in the U13 and U15 British Junior Open finals). “Ramy has always been extremely gifted with the racket, and I don't think his style has changed that much...although the main thing I remember from juniors is his lob! I can say that without doubt he's the most gifted player with the racket that I've stepped on court with, he does things that no one else would even think of let alone attempt. I really hope he can stay fit for an extended period as he's a fantastic ambassador and character.”
The French crowd discovered him last May at the Open de Paris IG. Although his name was already known to the squash experts (having been European Junior Champion and already won 8 PSA tournaments at only 23 years old), Declan James was the first to admit that his week in the Jeu de Paume “was a mini-breakthrough for me, thanks to two major victories over Adrian Waller and Nicolas Mueller.” Although he lost to his friend Chris Simpson in the finals, James had impressed with his spectacular style of play, his movement (quite astonishing for his height of 6ft 3). But also his attitude on and off the court, perfect combination of humility and self-confidence. (“I’ve been always been like this. Being calm on court helps my game anyway”).
“The most important thing is to enjoy my squash.”
After having missed the Hong Kong Open ("I felt that it was a little early in the season for me, and that I could benefit more from extending my summer training in order to get stronger and work on my game.“), James will kick off his season in Nantes. In 2016, he had started with three consecutive tournament wins! “I felt the benefit of the summer work immediately and it would be great to start as strongly again this season. I heard lots of really good things about this event last year, and with it being a 25k event with a world class field, I felt it would be the ideal event to begin the season.” The Open de Nantes will be the starting point of a very busy fall for James. “After Nantes, I'm back home for 10 days before heading to North America for the Nash Cup and U.S Open. Following that it will be onto the World Championships in Cairo.” On his mind, the top 30 “which I’d like to reach this season, but mainly my goal is to improve my squash and experience at a higher level. If I can continue to improve, and most importantly, enjoy my squash...then I will be happy.” He will surely be even happier should he be given the opportunity to be part of the England team in the next European Championships. "It was an honour to be nominated in the squad in May even though it was as a reserve. To play for my country this season would be a privilege and I would give it my all if called upon. For now I look forward to going into battle with my compatriots and the rest of the world in Nantes!” His wish may be fulfilled, since he finds himself in the bottom part of the draw with the likes of Tom Richards, Ben Coleman as well as Chris Simpson, whom he could face in the second round.