The cost of being a champion
4 min | 11 July 2022
Nick Matthew is one of the greatest squash players in history. The three-time world champion, who was awarded an OBE in 2015, won a trio of gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. On the eve of Birmingham 2022, he reveals the price he paid to reach the top.
It’s impossible to work out the precise financial cost of becoming the world’s best squash player, because I received National Lottery funding and equipment from my sponsors, Dunlop, throughout my 20-year career.
Squash is not awash with money, but that funding enabled me to build a support team around me. Before I turned pro, aged 18, it was all about the incalculable time, money and effort invested by my parents, which was invaluable. I couldn’t have reached the top without the sacrifices they made.
The single-mindedness required to excel at squash also cost me my teenage social life. Because I had tournaments to prepare for, I missed out on going out with my mates. I sacrificed potential friendships and, worse, was subjected to playground bullying because I was so dedicated to training.
I also played cricket and football in my early teens, but chose to focus solely on squash at the age of 15. To earn money for extra coaching sessions at my squash club in Sheffield, I worked in reception, strung rackets and swept the squash courts.
National Lottery funding came in a year before I turned professional. That meant there was a little cash in the bank, which, most importantly, meant I didn’t have to coach on the side to raise money for training, travelling and kit. Not having to graft to pay for coaching at that stage of my career made a huge difference to my development.
Behind every great athlete...
The funding also enabled me to build a team, including a psychologist, a physio, a nutritionist and various coaches. Without that funding, I wouldn't have achieved the breakthroughs that pushed me up the world rankings, and I might have even given up the sport.
I've seen plenty of players drop out of the game due to financial pressures.
Until I was in my mid-20s, I lived with my parents in Sheffield. I was lucky as they did everything, from ferrying me around the UK and paying for hotel rooms, to washing my clothes and cooking my meals.
The team has provided me with footwear, rackets and kit for 25 years. High-end squash rackets cost about £125 and shoes around £40, but it’s a very sweaty sport, so you go through a lot of kit.
The best investment I made in my career was a £1,200 mattress. At the peak of my powers, I would ideally have 10 hours of sleep a night. I used to love catching an afternoon nap on tournament days before a late-evening match.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi gave me one of my favourite memories. I was in the best form of my life, and I won two gold medals there, in the men’s singles and doubles. Then, a couple of months later, I was crowned world champion for the first time. I went on to be the number-one player for 19 months.
My wife, Esme, will tell you that these successes were down to her, as we met at the beginning of the purple patch (for non-sports fans, this means a lucky period). Fast forward to Glasgow 2014, and we were expecting our first child. It was a very emotional time, as I’d also just undergone knee surgery.
Fellow athletes had asked me to be England’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony, but it was touch and go whether I would be fit enough to compete. My physiotherapist advised me not to attend the ceremony and rest up, but there was no way I could turn down such an honour.
Carrying the flag in Glasgow is right up there with my wedding and the birth of our first child as one of the most endearing yet nerve-wracking experiences of my life. The fear of falling over in front of millions of people made me panic.
With sweaty palms, I gripped the flagpole like my life depended on it, taking each step with care. Thankfully, I didn’t make a fool of myself, and the fantastic feeling propelled me to gold in the singles, despite my injury worries.
I’m looking forward to experiencing another Commonwealth Games in 2022, but as assistant national coach for England. Hopefully, after all the faith the National Lottery and my family have shown in me, I can now pay something back, by inspiring younger players.