Daryl Selby: The Making of a (Future?) Champion

By Steve Crandall, Vice President, Sale & Marketing Asaway Racket Strings

Now age 27 and starting his sixth year on the PSA tour, Daryl Selby seems to be hitting his stride. Ranked 33 in the world at the beginning of the 2009 season, by April 2010 Selby had shot up to number nine, having reached the finals in four of his last five tournaments, and won one title. Is this a harbinger of things to come? Are we seeing in Daryl Selby the makings of a future champion?

When asked about his sudden rise by Martin Bronstein for the UK’s Squash Player magazine, Daryl said he couldn’t put his finger on “one definite thing” that had changed. Rather, he credited “a combination of things,” including a new-found confidence in his game, a settled home life with his fiancée, and having his family around.

We thought it would be interesting to explore the question further: to look behind the player stats and find out what makes a rising star like Daryl tick; to see how he got involved in the sport, how he trains, and what drives him to reach for the top ten and beyond. We caught up with Daryl on his drive back to Manchester after a summer training session. Here’s what he had to say.

Tell us a bit more about how you got involved with the sport, what motivated you to become a professional athlete.
I started playing squash when I was about four years old. My dad took me along to a little club near where we lived, and I just started hitting balls. He got very interested in squash and with me starting to play and enjoy it, he got his coaching qualifications. And it just progressed from there. My uncle played for Great Britain in tennis so he was always trying to get me to play tennis. But I ended up choosing squash because it was a faster game, more intense.

I also played a lot of football—soccer—all the way through my teens, along with squash. They were my two main sports, really. In terms of squash, I began actually training when I was about eight years old. My dad took me around the country and I played a lot of junior tournaments. I just carried on playing all the way through, really, until at 19 when I became a senior.

And is that when you joined the PSA Tour?
No, I went to university for three years, until I was nearly 22. So I got my education and a lot of life experience: you know, cooking for yourself, being on your own and having to do the things necessary to live on your own. I grew up a lot and I think that helped me when I started my career.

So what motivated you to turn Pro?
Well, I was encouraged by my family, but I was more encouraged by the kind of guys I was competing with when I was a junior, guys like James Willstrop, Peter Barker, Borja Golan and Greg Gaultier. They were all doing very well in the seniors, so that gave me a lot of hope that if I could get back up to that level, I could succeed at senior level as well. So, it wasn’t a hard decision. I got my degree, and the last six months of university, I started training properly and getting used to the demands of playing on tour.

And how have you found the experience?
I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a great lifestyle. There’s a lot of traveling and it can be tough: you know, you can have bad losses and you’re thousands of miles from home. But the rest of it is great. You get to do what you enjoy doing every day, and a lot of people may not be able to say that in terms of their job. But I can say I genuinely enjoy training and playing squash and trying to improve. So I feel lucky that I’m doing it. It’s a shame that we don’t get as much money as some other sports, but it’s still a living and I’m thankful for that…

Any regrets about not following your uncle’s tennis advice?
No. Anyone who plays squash seriously, hasn’t gotten into the sport for the money. It’s purely for the love of the game. However, I am trying to improve my golf game at the moment…

How would you describe your playing style?
On tour I’ve always been known as a fairly attritional player. I’ve been known for playing fairly long matches, being very fit, having a good engine, moving well, and having a good solid base game, but maybe not sometimes being able to hit those big winners, or those touch shots that the Egyptians have now become so good at. I think that was me when I was starting out on tour. I used that base game to climb up the ranks and be a solid player. Now I think I’ve adapted slightly and I’m trying to attack a lot more and be more pro-active and take the game to my opponent. I think you can see from the rankings over the last year or two, that it seems to have worked. I’m trying to use my physical fitness and speed to really put opponents under pressure. That seems to have done the job most of the time, and just now I’m trying to find the best way to step up and beat those guys who are the best in the world.

What would you say are the key drivers of your success?
I would say, part of it is natural ability, but you have to work hard no matter how much talent or ability you have. The guys who rise to the top are the ones who also use that talent and ability to work hard and are very devoted to the sport. I work hard and try to get the best out of myself. Along with the fact that my dad has coached me since I was four and still coaches me… so he’s a big influence in my progress. Talent, work ethic, and being led in the right direction.

Tell us about your training regimen.
At the moment, it’s summer training. So it’s a period where I’m doing a lot of physical work, just to get it in the bank for the season. You don’t get a lot of time to train during the season. So, I’m about three or four times in the gym a week, doing different weights, some for legs, some for the upper body, some for core stability work; that keeps you strong on the ball. I’m a keen runner as well, so I do a lot of work either on the track, or around near where I live. Normally there are longer running sessions earlier in the training, and then the closer you get to the season, doing shorter sessions where you try to get in a lot of speed work. I’m on the bike occasionally, but mainly I enjoy running.

But I never really run more than 10K because the way squash is being played now, it’s a lot shorter and sharper. In the old days with the English scoring, it used to be a war of attrition. Now it’s very much based on speed and repeat movements. So as the season approaches I work the shorter distances, 5Ks and then 400 m speed sets.

We also understand you’re the UK champion in racquetball. How do you compare the two games?
Yeah, I think I’ve won the national championships six times now. But UK racquetball is quite different from American racquetball. UK racquetball is still played on a squash court, so it’s fairly similar to squash, but the ball is different. Ours is a bit softer than the American. And the way you hit the ball is different in racquetball. It’s a lot flatter than in squash. In squash you tend to cut the ball a lot more. In racquetball it’s hit fairly flat. More like tennis with the top spin, but sort of in between tennis and squash.

You don’t find a conflict between the two?
No, actually it helps. Because the ball normally bounces up, someone that plays squash like me can cover a loose shot a lot easier. So I can afford to attack a lot more and know if I get out of position, I can probably get the next one back. So it’s an enjoyable game. They tell me it’s the fastest growing sport in the UK currently.

Now, about string. You’ve recently signed on as an Ashaway sponsored player, but we understand you’ve always used Ashaway string?
That’s right. I used SuperNick® originally, then I switched to PowerNick®, and now I’m using the light blue UltraNick®. I find the UltraNick slightly less powerful than PowerNick, but it’s given me more touch and just a little bit more control of the cut I can put on the ball. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last as long as the PN, but it definitely helps my forecourt game. I started using the UltraNick in January, and since then I’ve played in five tournaments, and got to the finals in four of them, and won one of them. So that’s a good run for just starting up with it.

But I still like the feel of PowerNick and I’ve still got a couple of racquets strung up with it. I think I’m going to use the PowerNick when I play doubles, actually, because with doubles you don’t need so much touch, it’s a lot more smashing the ball as hard as you can!

You say your dad strings all your racquets at 29 lbs. How often do you restring?
I normally use strings until they break, but I also like to start off a tournament with a freshly strung racquet. So if the strings last all the way through a tournament I’ll keep playing them in practice until they do break. But I’d say normally, for me, a set of strings will last seven or eight sessions. So that’s two or three weeks on the court.

Looking at this season’s schedule, it looks like you’re going to be very busy between traveling and playing. How do you think you’ll do?
The PSA tournaments are all going to be tough, because you’re going to have all the top players all the time. I’m seeded nine which is not a great position to be because you have to play one of the top 8 in the second round. But you go in and do the best you can. Hopefully I’ll make the quarters or semis of one of those first three tournaments and then start to beat some of the top players thereafter. If I can win a couple of medals at the Commonwealth Games, that will be great.