I’m going to undo everything you’ve learnt about how to hold a squash racket,” says Nick Matthew, the world champion, as we shake hands in a temporary transparent court in Canary Wharf – the perfect setting to expose my inadequacies. Matthew, regarded as the best English squash player of all time – he has won three World Open and three British Open titles as well as two Commonwealth gold medals – has already signalled his amusement at my retro racket and trainers.
“The first time people start to play they tend to hold the racket like a frying pan,” he says, his grin confirming that I still do. “Have it out in front of you and almost shake hands with it, so that your thumb and forefinger are touching – like a pincer movement. The racket wants to sit nicely in the fingers, rather than in your palm, and that will give you the manoeuvrability to change from forehand to backhand.”
When Matthew, who lives in his native Sheffield, was 19, he had to completely reconfigure his own game, after starting to work with a new coach, David Pearson, or “DP”. “We split squash up into four areas: physical; mental; technical; tactical. Without the technical aspect you can’t apply the other three. When I totally reworked my approach from scratch, it was the most crucial moment in my career,” he says. “It’s like golf, though: if you get a good swing going initially you can learn so much quicker. And once you have that technical skill set the tactics come in; squash is like chess on wheels.”
Pearson also mentors Laura Massaro, the 30-year-old from Great Yarmouth who became 2013 world champion last month. “DP’s the only coach with two current world champs, so he knows what he’s talking about,” says Matthew, who became the oldest first-time number one in June 2010, a month before his 30th birthday. “Now is a fantastic moment for England as it’s the first time that the country has had two world champions. The fact that both me and Laura are in our thirties – our supposed advanced years – shows hard work pays off.”
After the champion has sorted out my grip, we move on to perhaps the most vital aspect of squash: the serve. “Use a natural swing and find a rhythm,” he says. “You can body serve, power serve, lob it into the corner … keep it varied. For instance, if you are right-handed serving from the right side, a backhand will allow you to see your opponent, and their movements. You can also swiftly get to the T, the middle of the court, from where you can control the game.”
When I ask what speed a power service can travel at, Matthew says the fastest recorded is 178mph. “But that was someone really going for it; in a match, where you have to keep your accuracy as well, you might go to 150-160mph,” he offers, failing to reassure me before I attempt – and mostly fail – to volley his softly stroked serves, which expertly target the back corner.
“It doesn’t matter what size or body shape you have,” he says, perhaps to encourage me, adding: “There’s no one way to win a squash match. If someone is 5ft 3in they can still be a great player, through being fast and agile. If you are 6ft 5in you have a great reach and are big and powerful.”
With two reigning world champions, interest in squash in Britain is at an all-time high. According to a Sport England survey, published last year, it is the 10th most popular activity, with 240,700 over-16s playing at least once a week. England Squash & Racketball reckon that more than a million people have played squash in the past 12 months on about 8,500 courts – the most in the world. Websites such as thebighit.net, aimed at educating and aiding social players, help too.
A further, unexpected fillip arrived before the shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards was announced at the end of last year. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and the MP for Matthew’s Sheffield Hallam constituency, demanded his inclusion.
It came to nought, but squash players are used to such frustrations. The sport being overlooked for the 2012 London Olympics was “the biggest kick in the guts”, Matthew says. While some supporters are particularly zealous, such as the female fan at a Bermuda tournament who begged him to autograph her bare chest (he gamely obliged), he welcomes Clegg’s intervention.
“We get accustomed in our sport to playing it down,” says Matthew. “That was the first time I have had someone so esteemed speaking up for me. Journalists started to mention me, too, and I did get my hopes up for a while. Just to be mentioned in dispatches in that company was great for the sport.”
Up next for the world champion is the British Open, known as the Wimbledon of squash, on May 12-18. Matthew – who initially won it in 2006 to become the first Englishman to do so in 67 years – is hoping to clinch a fourth title and use it as a springboard to Commonwealth Games success in Glasgow later in the summer.
“Last year I lost in the British Open semi-finals and this year I hope to win it in Yorkshire, my home county,” he grins. “After that my other aim this season is to defend my two golds – in the singles and doubles – at the Commonwealths. It’s the biggest thing in squash; the Commonwealth Games is our Olympics.”
Matthew turns 34 in July but he has no intention of retiring from the tour just yet. “I read a quote once which said: ‘If you are thinking about retirement you are already semi-retired.’ Some days I feel good, some days I feel crap. As long as I’m competitive, so long as I’m enjoying it, I’ll carry on.
“I’ve made a pact that when I get a bit more time in my schedule I want to go into these squash clubs and reinvigorate people to play. When I have done exhibitions, people have come up and said: ‘You’ve inspired me to play again, and I’ll bring my kids, too.’ To hear that is as touching as winning a world championship.”
An hour with Matthew – in the middle of a tournament at which he went on to claim his fourth Canary Wharf Classic title last month – certainly inspired me to reconnect with squash. I might even chuck out my old Hi-Tec pumps and invest in some modern footgear and a new racket, if only to stop the sniggering.