The eyes moistened as Hedley Matthew tried to explain the impossible. Just what is the feeling like when your child exceeds even the wildest expectations of a parent?
Hedley, an intelligent man, certainly couldn’t find the right language as he stood proudly in front of a giant picture of son Nick on the English Institute of Sport’s Wall of Champions. But who can?
“Words can’t express it,” he said. “After the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi I was talking to a reporter and at one point I couldn’t talk because it was so emotional seeing him getting the gold medal.
“I had to apologise because I couldn’t talk. It is one of the things you dream about as a little boy. I remember when he was little dragging him round all the squash clubs. He used to lose to everyone when he first started; we never thought this sort of thing would happen.”
Hedley had just seen his son, world and commonwealth squash champion Nick Matthew, unveiled as the latest face on the Wall of Champions alongside the likes of athletes Jessica Ennis and Kelly Holmes and boxer James DeGale.
Only Olympic medallists or world champions make the cut. The honour is, of course, Nick’s. But no one can be best in the world without a support structure as brilliant as the player himself.
At the centre of that are parents Hedley and Sue. Hedley recalled the hours of practice and sacrifice, with even the family holiday destination dictated to by Nick:
“Family holidays never got interrupted because for nine years we went to Club de Santa in Lanzarote. They had nine squash courts, an Olympic track; we went there one year and Nick wouldn’t go anywhere else after that.
“We used to work a little training session out for the track. He’d run, swim, play tennis and get on the court every evening and have an hour. Our holidays were built around Nick’s squash. Everything in our family has been built around the squash for years and years.”
The memories of Nick growing up into the champion he is today are clear. Even the ones when he wasn’t on his best behaviour: “I remember vividly one tournament in Surrey when he was about 12 years old. He’d lost to a lad called Ben Garner who was one of the top juniors at the time. He sat in the corridor and cried his eyes out.
“It was always our bit of fun; getting away at the weekend. We’d have a good laugh and meet lots of friends around the country. But he sat there and cried and I said to him ‘you’re spoiling your fun; let’s go home, you’re taking it too serious’.
“After that I couldn’t find him for about half and hour and then I looked on a court and he was in middle of a group of kids with a big smile on his face and he said ‘I want to play again, I’m alright now dad’.”
And play again he did. Right up to being the most feared player on the squash circuit. Nick, aged 30, is in no doubt that the support he has received from his parents has made him the man, and player, he is today:
“I’ve always been fortunate. You do see some instances of parents pushing their kids too far, I don’t know if taking me on a sports holiday every year classes as that,” he joked.
“I don’t think anyone has seen more squash matches than my dad. His knowledge of the sport is unbelievable. They’ve had the right balance of pushing me and supporting me through the good times and the bad times.
“I always play my best when I’m around Sheffield. When I’m here for three or four weeks between events when I can get down to Hallamshire squash club and the EIS.”
Matthew’s work at his two training bases has made him arguably the fittest squash player in the world. His presence on court immediately puts his opponents at a disadvantage. However, Hedley says there’s more to his game than physical ability. And his competitive streak has always been there:
“The thing that gets missed is that he’s a fantastic squash player as well. People go on about other players’ wonderful shot play. I always say to Nick, impose your game on him. Make his heart rate go up.
“Nick has always been a stubborn so-and-so since was a little lad. In the house we had a pool table. From being about six-years-old we’d play and he wouldn’t go to bed until he’d beat me. In the end I’d be throwing the frame to get him upstairs.”
That Sheffield home still holds a place in Nick’s heart. But equally his relationship with the EIS, where he had rehabilitation on a serious shoulder injury and trains several times a week, means making ‘The Wall’ is very special:
“It is one of the biggest things I have managed to achieve. The criteria to get on the wall is tough, particularly for a squash player. I feel like I’m part of the furniture down here; it is a massive honour for me.”