“I think it’s just a few things here and there. Certainly, you slow up a little bit and your top speed isn’t as high as it was,” Nick Matthew admits as he explains the reasoning behind his upcoming spring retirement.
The only Englishman to win the World Championship, Matthew has been a force of consistency at the pinnacle of the squash world for more than a decade.
However, for Matthew, a fitness fanatic whose extreme work ethic has been fundamental to a career that has fostered two Commonwealth Games gold medals and three World Championship titles, ignoring his body and outstaying his welcome is not an option.
“If you use the analogy of a car that’s just got a few more miles on the clock, the top speed’s probably not quite what it was, you need a bit more of a regular service and MOT, the recovery after a long journey is not quite what it was.
“But at the same time, it could probably get back home with its eyes closed with a satnav. There are pluses to it but there’s hard parts as well.
“Obviously, eventually you do get past your sell-by date.
“For me, it’s been trying to maintain a level. I know that I’m not necessarily going to improve overall nowadays but there are still certain areas I can improve and will strive to – technically, tactically, mentally.
“And then you can certainly halt that decline. I don’t like referring to it as a decline but I think it’s been proven over the years that it’s called a peak for a reason. For me, it’s been about making sure I don’t fall off a cliff!”
This though, is what has proven most difficult for Matthew, who hopes to sign off from the sport with a fourth British Open title in his hometown of Sheffield.
“I was always told by athletes who got to this stage of their career that you get to a point and you will know when it’s time. I never believed them and didn’t see that but I now see what they’re saying.
“It’s funny saying that I’m ready because I still feel like I’ve got a lot of things that I want to try and achieve. I’m ambitious for this last season but, at the same time, I’m now excited about what comes next.
“I certainly don’t want to wish time away and I want to appreciate every last drop of sweat but now I can see the journey and the progression. I think I’ve been very lucky – and hopefully it will stay this way – that it’s been on my own terms. It can and has happened to many athletes where it’s been taken out of their hands really.”
The 37-year-old credits a lifelong determination for his desire to maintain a challenge at the summit of the sport that Forbes has voted as the world’s most healthy for the last two years.
“It didn’t do me any harm that I was an only child and that I was a Yorkshireman and a Leo and had self-sufficient sort of characteristics. I didn’t mind my own company or doing those early mornings and I quite enjoyed training on my own – and other times I’ve enjoyed being part of a group.”
And while Matthew is quick to acknowledge that these characteristics are by no means paramount for success in this most intense of sports, there is no doubt as to the importance that his obsession with self-motivating has played in his longevity.
“You certainly do want to quit while you’re ahead,” he confesses. “But at the same time, you want to eke out every last drop. I think that’s been a thing that’s served me well, twofold.
“When you do get to the top, you do get to showcase all those years of training and hard work. And then, the longevity that I’ve managed to achieve through my career is testament to all those years of attention to detail and hard work that’s gone into the journey. I’ve been very fortunate to have this longevity that a lot of others don’t have and I think that, with where I am now, I’m appreciating now all the work that I put in over those years.”
Yet, for all the work that has gone into a remarkable career – only eight players have spent longer at the top of the world rankings since 1975, there remains a single tinge of frustration.
“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” he says as talk turns to the International Olympic Committee’s continual overlooking of the sport.
“I’m not sure anyone actually has an answer to that. It’s one that’s never really been answered and is probably the biggest disappointment in my career.
“I don’t call it a regret because it’s out of my hands but it does seem like we’ve been quite hard done by with that. There’s lots of hurdles that we’ve had to overcome and boxes that we’ve had to tick and hoops that we’ve had to jump through which, as far as I can see, we’ve done it all.
“We were told to improve its televisibility and we’ve done that. It was voted YouTube’s best sport last year. We’ve done all these different things and then you see that eGames are potentially going to be considered for the next Olympics.
“You can’t help think about what we’re trying to teach these kids about health and wellbeing. It is a worry but we’ll never give up that fight because I think it is a platform the sport deserves to have.”
The ongoing exclusion of a sport more than 180 years-old defies much of the premise on which Olympism is based. According to US Squash, in the United States alone, the sport has more than one and a half million players – a figure rising closer to twenty million worldwide.
Nicol David, an eight-time women’s world champion, admitted that she would swap all eight gold medals for one featuring the Olympic rings. Meanwhile, golf – chosen for the Rio 2016 Games at squash’s expense – saw its top players withdraw, offering a number of outlandish excuses.
Factor in that players from 74 different countries featured on the men’s and women’s circuits last year and it seems hard to comprehend quite why such a model sport continues to be ignored.
As Matthew highlights: “Squash does really tick those original Olympic ideals – that idea of faster, higher, stronger.”
However, without the possibility of an Olympic showpiece until – at the earliest – 2024, squash has had to sustain itself without the priceless advantage of featuring in world sport’s greatest spectacle.
“After London 2012, people started trying all these new sports that weren’t necessarily in the public psyche like water polo and handball that they’d seen on TV,” he explains.
“We massively missed the boat with that but it’s not to say that we won’t get another opportunity in the future.”
Though, with this neglect – Matthew suggests – there has been a silver lining.
“The Commonwealth Games and the World Championships become even more of a pinnacle [without the Olympics] and I think it’s important that you make sure that your own house is in order.
“There are a lot of other sports where teams are trained and they only have their big event once every four years. As massive an event as it is, there are handball players that have to go to University or stack shelves at Tesco because they’ve put all their eggs in a four-year Olympic basket.
“Whereas fortunately, squash players can earn a living for the intervening years. The Olympics would be the cherry on top of the whole cake. Without the Olympics, we’ve had to intrinsically grow. You see the figures and it has done over the last ten years.
“Of course, we need that Olympics for the wider psyche. But the good thing about the sport – and it’s very similar to tennis although not being quite at the same level of finance – is that you can still earn a career and you can still do well alongside it.”
And it is this message that Matthew hopes to instill in the next generation. He has opened academies in both England and the United States, but remains wary of the difficulties involved in presenting the sport as a viable career opportunity in the absence of the Olympics and the additional funding provided.
“Right now, we have to focus on other aspects. We’ve got the health aspect. We have to get kids hooked on the game. Not everyone’s going to get hooked on squash – but we’ve got to get into schools and attract them from a young age.
“If you’ve got a class of 30 and you get three people from that class coming down for squash lessons then that’s not a bad ratio in terms of people taking up the sport.
“Squash is very much a live sport in that once you try it, you end up getting hooked very quickly. It challenges every aspect of you and sometimes it’s just a case of making people aware of that. Getting into the Olympics would obviously massively help that.”
In the meantime, Sport England have awarded England Squash with a boost of £7.9m to continue the growth of the game nationwide. For Matthew, this funding has been paramount throughout his career.
“It’s crucial,” he admits. “I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the funding programme and the Lottery funding since I was 17 years-old. It’s been a massive part of my career.
“Without that funding – and we’ve seen what’s happened in sports like badminton – it’s brutal and a lot of people depend on it.”
“Who’s to say where I’d have been without that? You like to think that you’d have made it regardless but it would certainly have been a tougher journey. It’s crucial that it’s not just at the top end. You need that success at the top end to hopefully filter down to the grassroots.
For Matthew, his time at the top is almost over. He has three final chances to add yet more success to an outstanding list of achievements. The World Championships in Manchester will be followed by the Commonwealth Games out on Australia’s Gold Coast. Fittingly, the British Open in Sheffield will provide the setting for a final flourish.
Could he be tempted to reconsider, were he to add to his medal haul?
“No chance,” he laughs.
It is a response that adds a sense of finality to the career of one of Britain’s greatest ever racket sport players.
Featured photograph: England Squash