North Walsham’s James Willstrop on top of the squash world
North Walsham may look like any other town but scratch beneath the surface and you find it has a global significance in the world of squash.
The parish has produced more world number one squash players than London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford and Manchester combined.
Only five English-born home internationals have reached the pinnacle of their sport, but two of them started life in this modest market town. World champion Cassie Thomas, nee Jackman, first topped the ranking list in 2000 and a second player born there is now leading the men's game.
James Willstrop was delivered at the North Walsham Hospital in August 1983 weighing just under 10lb, then allegedly the heaviest baby born there. Move forward to 2012 and the 6ft 4ins 29-year-old has been world number one for a total of 10 months after first taking over from compatriot Nick Matthew in January.
James enjoyed a glittering junior career winning British Open, European and World Championship titles before reaching number two in the world in 2005. A host of major titles followed together with defeats in the finals of one World Open and two British Opens until everything fell into place over the last year. 'I don't think it was down to one single factor,' said James. 'It was the culmination of a life's work, though I'm always changing things and making improvements. Something just clicked, but it was really down to all the hard work I've done since a young age.'
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While James's family moved away when he was young, his first experiences of squash came in North Walsham under the tutelage of his father Malcolm, a world-renowned coach who also guided Cassie for a spell. It was at Rossi's Leisure as a toddler James first hit a squash ball and he still has memories of these early forays into the sport. 'I recall going to the club and always had images in my head of the courts and the place in general. Then I returned to Rossi's two years ago and everything was just as I had remembered.
'I've been to Norfolk for a few exhibitions in recent years and I always enjoy coming back.'
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James will be in action next at the Hong Kong Open where he will be the number one seed with high hopes of retaining his title.