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Making A Racket

Nick MatthewEven the most observant snooker fan may not have recognised Nick Matthew when he came to the Betfred World Championship this year, despite the fact that he has competed several times at the Crucible.

That’s because Matthew’s sport is squash rather than snooker. He was enthralled by the atmosphere of the famous Sheffield Theatre when he played here in the English Open, which was staged at the Crucible from 2003 to 2006.

Born and bred in Sheffield, Matthew is one of the city’s most successful sporting sons, having won both the World Championship and the British Open three times apiece. At the age of 35, he is still ranked third in the world, and he was awarded an OBE last year for his outstanding achievements.

Like most sports-crazed kids who have grown up in Sheffield over the past four decades, he was transfixed by snooker in his formative years.

“You couldn’t fail to be into snooker and the World Championship,” said Matthew, recalling his childhood. “At the age of eight my dad bought me a pool-size snooker table for Christmas and it was the best present I ever got. It meant I didn’t believe in Santa Claus any more because I saw my dad putting it up!

“We had it in the house until I was about 20. I’d invite my mates round, we’d have tournaments and pretend we were playing in the Crucible. Pretty soon I because almost unbeatable because I had home advantage and I knew every roll of the table.

“I still play now – I’m a member of a snooker club in Hallamshire only around 300 yards from where I train. I used to play a fair but not so much these days as my schedule it too hectic. I’ve had a few breaks in the 40s but never quite made the 50.

“Back in the 80s, my mum’s favourite player was always Jimmy White, but I preferred John Parrott and Steve Davis. These days I’m a big fan of Ronnie O’Sullivan, as I suppose most people who watch snooker are.

“I’ve been to the Crucible many times and I love the atmosphere, especially when it goes down to one table. In the past I’ve often sneaked in for a couple of hours in between training sessions. It’s wonderful to have such a big event in the city and over the years it has become part of the culture of Sheffield.

“The Crucible is just a fantastic arena for sport, as I have discovered when I have played squash there. For us it has the same intense and slightly claustrophobic feel that the snooker players must experience, as the fans in the front row nearly have their knees up against the glass.”

Matthew turned pro in 1998 and won his first British Open title in 2006. In 2010 his career reached a new high as he won the World Championship and topped the world rankings. He successfully defended his world title in 2011 and won it for a third time in 2013. His other career highlights include winning Commonwealth Games gold medals in 2010 and 2014 as well as seven British National titles.

His list of honours might have been even longer had he not suffered shoulder and knee injuries which have kept him off the court for months at a time.

“I’ve had a few injuries over the years which is inevitable because squash involves heavy impact on the body,” said the father of one. “I guess that’s something snooker players rarely have to deal with. But many of them look in fantastic shape, including Judd Trump, Neil Robertson and Ronnie O’Sullivan – who can run 10km faster than me. The days of having a pint by the side of the table are clearly long gone!

“I’m really interested in the psychological side of snooker. Even the best players spend a lot of time sitting in the chair when the other guy is at the table making a break. But he still has to be ready to play in case his opponent misses. I’d love to know what systems they use for dealing with those situations. In squash if you lose a point then the next one comes very quickly so you don’t have time to think about it, whereas in snooker you might be sitting down for ten minutes and I guess the temptation might be to beat yourself up about a ball you’ve just missed.”

One thing snooker and squash have in common is a long term ambition to receive a place in the Olympics, a goal which has eluded both so far.

“We have missed out four times and it has been very disappointing, especially for 2012 in London because I was world number one at the time and it would have been a great opportunity for me to compete in the Olympics at my best in my home country,” said Matthew. “It’s the biggest regret of my career that I haven’t been able to do that as it would have really taken me to a higher level. Squash is a global sport with emerging markets in Asia and South America. It is dynamic and fast paced and ticks all of the Olympic boxes so we feel it should be included.”