HE has forged a reputation for being one of the most consistent squash players on tour. But with no tournament wins in over three years, Peter Barker knows time is running out to finally realise his undoubted potential.
By Michael Catling, republished from Express.co.uk.
Peter Barker is in a rush. Bearing closer resemblance to an Olympic triple jumper, rather than a world number eight squash player, Barker bursts through the Queen’s Club concourse area amid a foray of sprints, skips and leaps. Barely avoiding an elderly couple, he proceeds to hurdle the corner of a sofa before disappearing out of sight.
It is quite a performance just five minutes before his opening match at the World Series Squash Finals. Yet judging by his gung-ho display on-court, it clearly served as little more than a light warm up.
Fast forward 24 hours however and after a cursory glance at his watch, Barker is embarking on another Chariots of Fire escapade as he dashes off towards the media centre.
Barely out of breath, he returns just moments later with his racket bag in one hand and his phone in the other. “I have a bus to catch in 20 minutes,” the 29-year-old reveals. “This interview won’t take too long will it?”
If he spoke as quickly as he ran, it seemed very unlikely but sensing my uncertainty, he declines an invitation to reschedule and reassures me that he could catch a later bus if necessary.
By this point though, he seems relatively content to collapse into the confines of the same sofa he had leapt over just 24 hours previous. After all, he has spent the ‘last hour’ practising on court.
Arms outstretched, he puffs his chest outwards before leaning forwards with an eagerness to get going. Having barely sat down myself, such urgency is emblematic of a player who lives life at 100 miles an hour.
It is fortunate then that he chose squash as a profession. He certainly seems tailor-made for the high-octane lifestyle. But as he reveals, he actually harboured aspirations for a slightly different career.
“I always enjoyed playing squash but it wasn’t my absolute passion,” admits the former British and World Junior Open runner-up.
“Squash was just one of many sports that I played really. Football was probably my main love I guess and I actually had trials at Bolton and Blackburn.
“I was also in the independent school England team so it was a big heartache for me when I had to drop football after leaving school. Truth be told though, I was always better at playing squash…even though I probably preferred football”
Despite his initial hesitancy, Barker wasted little time in joining the PSA tour and alongside another prodigious young talent in James Willstrop, he turned professional in 2002 – just months after leaving school.
But while Willstrop’s career took off almost immediately with an England call up in 2003, Barker had to wait another three years before being afforded a similar opportunity.
However, it was his second call-up to the England squad in 2007 which really signalled Barker’s rise to prominence – a time which the England number three still remembers fondly.
“I was called up as a reserve for the World Team Championships in Chennai but during the event, Lee Beachill got injured so I was brought into the team to play the deciding rubber against Cameron Pilley in the final.”
“I didn’t have a good record against him at the time but I managed to beat him and effectively won England the Team Championships.
“There was a lot of pressure due to the team environment – quite similar to football actually – so to win the deciding rubber was a very special moment.”
Nearly six years on however and the careers of Willstrop and Barker have taken invariably different paths. Until only recently, both players were labelled as perennial ‘nearly men’ – owing to their tendency to falter in the latter stages of tournaments.
It is a tag Willstrop has since been able to shake off. Holding the world number one spot for nearly a year certainly helped. Barker, though, has not been quite so fortunate.
Despite reaching at least the quarter final stage of every tournament between January 2011 and December 2012, such unerring levels of consistency struggled to blossom into anything truly substantial.
It seems somewhat ironic then to suggest that a bronze medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi ranks as one of his greatest individual achievements.
Although Barker would probably dispute such an assertion, it is hard to argue that his achievements pale in comparison to his two English teammates.
But while Barker is quick to lavish praise on his two compatriots, he feels confident that he can overtake the duo atop the world rankings.
“Nick deserves all the recognition he gets and equally James does. But those guys are not going to be around forever – as I’m not – so it’s up to me to try and step into those shoes.
“I know what I have got to do. I finished last year at world number five which is a career highlight for me and I’ve beaten everybody above me at least once so I know I can do it. I’ve just got to get myself in the right physical condition to do it on a regular basis.”
Just listening to Barker and it is rarity to find someone who speaks so glowingly and complimentary about their peers.
It is a shame then that squash was excluded from the London Olympics this summer; otherwise Barker would surely have thrived under the team environment.
Yet as we watch a group of people wander aimlessly around the Queen’s Club concourse area, it is symptomatic of the relative anonymity attached to the sport that no one seems to recognise one of the game’s top players.
Indeed, type Peter Barker into Google and the top results will range from a leading British painter to a University professor. Barker may be the current world number eight but squash simply lacks the exposure that only truly comes from Olympic recognition.
And with the future of the sport still up in the air, Barker is under no illusions as to the importance of finally securing a place in the Olympic Games.
“For squash to have any future it needs to get into the 2020 Games and if it doesn’t, I think the sport is in trouble to be honest.
“I genuinely think that this is our last chance and if we are not successful, I don’t see where the future of the game is going or can go.
“The PSA deserve a lot of credit for the changes they have made and they have been very innovative with helping the sport to move forward. But for the spectator and participation levels and prize money to go up, I think we need Olympic recognition more than ever.”
Such a candid response is the surest sign yet of how desperately squash needs the Olympic Games to progress.
It’s a sad realisation for everyone connected with the sport that squash continues to be overlooked by the International Olympic Committee and one which looks set to linger profusely for the next few months at least.
But as the conversation drifts back towards his personal hopes for the future, Barker appears much keener to focus on issues within his own control. As he gleefully admits, he still wants to become ‘the best squash player’ he can be.
And with a spate of injury problems now behind him, the 29-year-old is hopeful of adding to his 13 PSA tour titles.
“I had three injuries at the back end of last year which was a bit concerning and if I want to be on the top of my game, I need to stay fit,” confesses Barker.
“But I’m still really enjoying my squash and I’m lucky that I really enjoy the training aspect. I think that is a side that a lot of players really struggle with but I love training and working hard.
I have recently changed my training programme slightly and I am also seeing a psychologist as well so hopefully these small changes will make a difference. I just need to try and get a few more wins.”
For now at least, ending his winless run will have to wait – he still has that bus to catch remember. But as he scampers off down the corridor, who would bet against him sprinting all the way to success.