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Illness robbed Marshall of crowning glory

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Unmistakable technique: Peter Marshall demonstrates his unique double-handed playing style during the Randall & Quilter Legends of Squash tournament at the Bermuda Squash Racquets Association in Devonshire taking place this week. (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

At the age of just 23 Peter Marhsall was on the cusp of achieving everything he had strived towards within squash, when it was all cruelly taken away from him.

With his unique double-handed playing style and unmatchable fitness levels on court, England’s Marshall was undoubtedly the main contender to displace the aging and iconic Pakistani champion Jansher Khan as world No 1, having finished as runner-up to the great Khan at the World Open in 1994 and the British Open the following year.

However, in 1995, Marshall was afflicted with glandular fever, which he was later to be told had developed into chronic fatigue syndrome, an illness with no treatment and no known cure.

Worse still, the world No 1 in waiting, was told he had to give up squash, initially for a year, but faced the very real possibility of never playing competitively again.

“I was world No 2 at only 23 and the top player in the world Jansher Khan was on his way down at that stage,” said Marshall, who went from the elation of victories on court to the despair of being too weak to walk across a room. “Arguably, all I had to really do was keep fit and maintain my form and I probably would have taken that spot; in essence I was the world No 1 in waiting.

“Being that close, to then not being able to play, knowing you were so close, was mentally and physically incredibly tough.

“I was on the cusp of everything I had worked for and it was taking away, which at that age I couldn’t really deal with.”

In a cruel twist of fate, Marshall’s gruelling fitness regime, that had made him such a dominant force on court, also played a part in his decline off of it.

Under the guidance of coach Jonah Barrington, a six-time British champion, Marshall underwent a regime that revolutionised the sport and the approach of players in their preparations.

“Jonah Barrington was known as one of the people who transformed squash into more of a professional game,” added Marshall.

“He was one of the first people to train seriously and think about the sport as a profession. Before it was more of an amateur game where people didn’t train or think about anything outside of just playing games.

“His work ethic was unbelievable and from a young age I was coached by him, he got me to a level of fitness that had never been seen before.

“Other players who followed saw the benefits of what we were doing and tried to emulate us.

“We used to do a lot of work on court, but without the ball. It was a lot of being moved around all of the time.

“We also used to do a lot of running, 400 metres and repetitive sprints, all interval training to make you as fit as possible.

“I was diagnosed with the illness and that was partly down to the amount of training I was doing. Arguably, I pushed it too much at times and paid the price, but I was young and keen to keep going and progressing.”

After a frustrating two years out of action, Marshall plotted his comeback, returning to the court and increasing his training schedule to three hours a day, as well as playing practice matches against longtime training partner and compatriot Simon Parke, who at the time was England’s No 1 and world No 5.

Marshall eventually featured in his first competitive match in January 1997, reclaimed his place in the England squad which went on to win the World Team Squash Championships title in Malaysia, before breaking back into the world’s top ten in 1999 and winning his third British National Championship title in February 2000.

“When I look back now, I try to be positive and appreciate the fact that I got to play a sport I absolutely love, professionally, but at the time, it was incredibly difficult to deal with it,” added Marshall.

“I had two years out then came back, then another two years out and came back again and then after that had to concede I couldn’t continue.

“I was at my peak, at the top of my game, at 23, and although I made comebacks I was never as good as I was.

“Having that time out, I had to start again from the very bottom. I was ranked around 300 in the world, came back into the top ten, then did it all again and then eventually stopped not long after that.”

Following his retirement, Marshall released an autobiography about his battle against chronic fatigue syndrome in 2001 entitled Shattered: A Champion’s Fight Against a Mystery Illness, and while his illness struggles and unique playing style may overshadow his sporting success in some people’s memories, the man himself has no qualms about how he will be remembered by squash fans.

“You don’t really get to choose what happens to you and how people see you, but I don’t mind people being interested in my story,” added Marshall, who is on island competing in the the annual Randall & Quilter Legends of Squash tournament.

“Whether it be my illlness and comebacks or the fact that my technique meant I stood out on the court, everyone has a story with ups and downs and I guess those things are what have defined me.

“I also don’t mind being a bit of an advocate for mental and physical wellbeing. “For all the years where I could have been world No 1 and that’s upsetting, on the positive side, I’m physically OK and that is great.”

The past five years have seen Marshall pick up his racket more regularly again with the Legends of Squash tournament giving him the perfect excuse to turn back the clock and relive his former glory days.

Having endured the struggles during his professional career, Marshall believes it has allowed him to savour the moments back on court.

“In a strange way, my illness problems and breaks away from the sport is probably why I am able to still play now because the rests in between have arguably prolonged my playing days,” he said.

“Had I played all the way throughout my career, my body and mind probably wouldn’t want to do it now.

“It means I still enjoy it now. I can appreciate the joy of playing again now because I never know when I might be forced to stop again, I want to make the most of it and enjoy it while I can.

“I missed out on coming to Bermuda last year, so now I’m making up for lost time and making the most of the experience.

“On a selfish note it is also lovely for me to be able to play in front of my son. He’s never known me as a squash player so its great for me to be able to play at a reasonably good level and give him some memories of me on court.”

n The final group matches of the Legends of Squash tournament yesterday, saw title favourite David Palmer and Holland’s LJ Anjema maintain their perfect records.

Palmer overcame Simon Parke 11-4, 11-9, while Anjema prevailed against previously unbeaten John White, 11-6, 8-11, 11-4.

There was also a victory for Marshall who beat Welshman David Evans 11-4, 11-6, while Canada’s Jonathon Power overcame England’s Nick Taylor, 13-11, 11-9.

The results mean that unbeaten Palmer and Anjema will go head-to-head in the final, today, while Marshall and White will battle it out for third place.