England’s Nick Matthew, OBE, a three-time World Champion and winner of Commonwealth Games singles and doubles golds in Delhi 2010 and a singles gold and doubles silver in Glasgow 2014, is one of the game’s most decorated players.
Today, though, Matthew is in Birmingham as part of an England coaching team that is looking to add to the four medals won in Gold Coast 2018.
Earlier, we caught up with the former World No.1 to relive some of his favourite Commonwealth Games memories.
Hi Nick, thanks for chatting with me today for our countdown to the Commonwealth Games. When I say Commonwealth Games, what’s the first memory or image that comes to your mind?
It’s actually Glasgow 2014, which was my third games at that time. Quite often it’s your first one, but in Glasgow I came back from an awful lot of ups and downs in a short space of time. I had knee surgery four-and-a-half weeks before the Games and my wife was also due with our first baby around that time, so there was a lot of emotional roller coaster type things going on. So then to win the gold medal in singles just felt like I could finally breathe out after a couple of months of a lot of stress. The emotions of that are probably some of the best of my whole career, never mind just the Commonwealth Games!
And at those Games you became the first flagbearer to win a gold medal for England since Darren Campbell in the 4×100 in 2002. What was that experience like?
I didn’t actually know that! Becoming the flagbearer for England in Glasgow in 2014 was an amazing honour, but I didn’t actually know that I was the first gold medal winner since 02, so thanks for that, it’s a nice one!
The honour of that was unbelievable. And when coupled with the stresses I mentioned earlier, my emotions were all over the place. To be honest, [before being designated as flagbearer] I actually wasn’t going to go to the opening ceremony!
I’ve always gone to the opening ceremonies throughout my career, because I think that they just give you that sense of what’s about to happen, that wow factor that you don’t get any other event. But I actually wasn’t going to go on this one occasion just to rest my knee; the physio thought it wasn’t a good idea for me to attend the opening ceremony. But then of course, when I got handed that honour, I couldn’t not do it. It was probably against medical advice at that time, but it all ended well, thankfully.
The flag was very heavy, actually, I think I was more nervous than anything about dropping it, or stumbling over the carpet! But fortunately, it all worked out.
How did the flagbearer nerves compare to pre-match nerves?
I think carrying the flag was the most nervous I’ve been, apart from my wedding day, in my entire life! But it was incredible and perhaps [the nerves were] a good thing because it made me forget about my knee at least.
And then the matches themselves. In 2010 and 2014, you played two really big singles finals against James Willstrop, who you’d had quite a rivalry with on the professional circuit. What was it like transitioning from rivals to England teammates, but then ultimately playing against each other?
I think my rivalry with James Willstrop will hopefully go down in Commonwealth Games squash history. We had a lot of battles all around the world tour over the years and obviously, ultimately, squash is an individual sport, but we had been on successful England teams as well. I think we’d been three times world champions with England as well on the same team. So we managed to sort of put aside personal rivalries quite well, I think, over the years
I think Glasgow 2014, when James came back from his own injury problems, was one of our best matches and it was fitting in 2018 that James went on to win the gold himself. I think that nicely closed the circle, if you like, on that story.
And how how important is a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games to squash players?
A gold medal for squash players at Commonwealth Games is the pinnacle. I think any English athlete, or any English squash athlete, will tell you that first of all, to even make the England team for the Commonwealth Games is a tough ask because of our strength in depth. Our historical strength at squash is so tough, so if you make the team you’re almost a medal hope straightaway. You can only select three players for singles so you’re straightaway in the hunt. I suppose it’s a bit like being selected for the US 100 metres team: if you’re in the top three in the US you’ve got a chance for a medal and it’s been that way for squash over the years. We’ve got a great legacy going back to Peter Nicol, Lee Beachill, myself and James and hopefully this year in Birmingham we’ve got a new generation coming through.
On the topic of legacy, I think even now, if you ask members of the British public to name a squash player, I think Nick Matthew would be around the top of the list. What sort of a role do you think the Commonwealth Games has had on your own legacy?
Well, I think I was an answer on [BBC quiz show] Pointless once and I was quite a low score, so perhaps not that well known! But, I think around the London 2012 [Olympics] where squash had missed out, Glasgow was the thing that put squash back on the map a little bit. And then we had the World Championships in Manchester, sandwiched in between those two Commonwealth Games, which was live on BBC and I was fortunate enough to win that one. I think that period in time was probably the best profile for squash that I’d seen in my lifetime. And hopefully Birmingham will be another step forward again.
And what do you think the fans travelling to Birmingham can expect from an English Commonwealth Games?
Of the fans travelling to Birmingham, I know they’ll be behind us. I think it brings out that partisan crowd. In Glasgow, even though it was in the sort of ‘the old [auld] enemy,’ we got lots of support. I remember the day after the singles final, stepping out into the pool matches of the doubles and thinking ‘oh it might be a bit low key today,’ and it was absolutely packed again. And my partner Adrian Grant, who’d sat out the singles was like ‘wow.’ And that was what it was like every single day and every single session, so I expect nothing less in Birmingham.
I think we’re perhaps slightly going into it in a different sort of mindset than we have been in the past, when quite often England have been the favourites in many events. Now there’s a few other countries that have really stepped up. So we’re kind of going in as the underdogs in some events. But we’ll be on home soil and that always brings out the best in everyone.
As part of the coaching team for England, do you have any advice to those young players making their Commonwealth Games debut?
I think at your first Commonwealth Games, you’ve got to soak it up and not put too much pressure on yourself. Looking back, I had a bit of an up and down first Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, where I almost made the podium in the singles and came fourth and then had an early exit in the doubles. But that experience really stood me in great stead for my second Games in Delhi in 2010. I think without that first Games, I perhaps wouldn’t have won the medals there.
So I think for any athlete playing in their first Games, it’s a case of ‘don’t put too much pressure on yourselves, soak it up. You’re young enough that you’ll have more in the future.’
I think we’ve got a nice mix in our team, with a couple of experienced players who’ve been to three or four and then a couple of new ones heading to their first. It’s a really nice mix in the squad.