Squash queen Datuk Nicol David who just won her fifth Asian Games gold medal has brought more glory to Malaysia than any other athlete, and there is just no stopping her dominance on the world stage.
Datuk Nicol David almost certainly will never play in an Olympics. She is 31, and after years of polite lobbying and genuine hope, squash, the demanding sport she has long dominated, has yet to make the final cut into the Games.
Not for 2012. Not for 2016 and not, after a particularly concerted effort, for 2020.
“It was difficult,” she said of the most recent effort to make squash an Olympic sport. “That was one of our best campaigns.”
So Nicol, a small Malaysian who casts a long shadow with a racket in hand, must settle for the peaks she is allowed to scale. She won her second gold medal in singles at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July and has just won a gold medal at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
“For our country, the Asian Games is probably the next big thing after the Olympics,” Nicol said in an interview this week from Kuala Lumpur.
The Asian Games are also the multisport event that launched her career in earnest. She was just 14 when she won the singles in the 1998 Games in Bangkok, and that precocious performance helped convince her that a successful professional career was possible.
It also helped convince Malaysian sports officials to throw more backing behind a sport whose traditional power base was elsewhere.
But Nicol, the youngest of three squash-playing sisters, has changed that equation and is now that rare athlete from South-East Asia who is No.1 in a sport played globally. She is also the first Asian woman to reach the top of the squash rankings.
“She’s been up there for a long time,” said the British player Laura Massaro, 30, who has competed against her since juniors and is currently her most serious rival.
“Many people think a lot of it comes down to her physical presence on court and what she has in terms of physical gifts.
“She is extremely quick. But I believe that a lot of people are handed a lot of gifts. It’s how you build on them.
“More than anything, with Nicol I think it comes down to will and a determination to succeed and the drive to keep going every day.”
Nicol was born and raised on the island of Penang, part of a multicultural family in a multicultural country.
“My dad is a mix of Indian and Eurasian, my mum is Chinese, so I’m a little bit of everything,” said Nicol, who grew up speaking English at home.
Her father represented the state of Penang in field hockey and athletics and played goalkeeper for a local football team. If not for a family friend’s decision to build a squash centre in Penang, his daughters surely would have focused on a sport other than squash.
“My dad played socially, and they asked him to bring my sisters and me over to the courts, and that’s how we started to play and get some coaching,” Nicol said.
“I did running and swimming and played volleyball and basketball in school, but what really got me into squash was that it brought me to places, and I got to travel with my sisters. We had a good bunch who really looked out for each other, and we were just having a ball, meeting new people and playing the game. We were good at it, too, so I think that was the difference.”
What really made the difference in her professional career was Nicol’s decision in 2003 to move her training base from Malaysia to Amsterdam to work with the coach Liz Irving. Irving, an Australian who reached No.2 in the world rankings, was still playing at the time.
Nicol was then 19 and had just taken a three-month break from the sport, having fallen into a funk after missing out on gold at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, in 2002
“The move to Amsterdam really got me to go back a step and break everything down from scratch to start from pretty much zero to build my technique and my movement and how to volley well,” Nicol recalled. “Because in the seniors it was a whole different ball game as opposed to being in the juniors. So that was my turning point to be where I am right now.”
Amsterdam – a continent away from Malaysia – was also a fine place to concentrate on squash far from home-nation demands and scrutiny, much as Kei Nishikori, the Japanese tennis star who became the first Japanese man to reach a Grand Slam final at the United States Open this month, has found it useful to base himself in Florida.
Nicol says she spends about five months of the year in the Netherlands, two months in Malaysia and the rest of the year travelling and competing, usually in the glass courts that are now a fixture on the pro circuit and can be placed anywhere from an Egyptian resort island to Grand Central Station in New York.
“I think no matter what level you are at in any sport, you have to move out of your country to be in another place and to adapt to the environment and do it on your own,” she said. “Because when you compete, you are out there on your own, usually in a foreign country.”
Her sponsorships and government funding have given her an edge over some of her rivals, allowing her to build a support team that includes a physiotherapist and a psychologist in a sport where prize money hardly rivals that of women’s tennis, a far more lucrative racket sport.
Nicol studies that game from a distance.
“I used to watch a lot of basketball when Michael Jordan was playing,” she said.
“But I watch tennis especially now because it’s so close to how squash is. So you see how top players, like Federer and Djokovic and Nadal and the top women like Sharapova and Serena, handle crucial moments. You can watch what they do and how they compose themselves, and I really learn a lot and, hopefully, I can take their best points and bring it into my game as well.”
Grunting is not one of the carryovers. “There’s no time,” Nicol said, laughing. “Because by the time you make a noise like that your opponent is on to the next ball and then you’re stuck.”
Squash rallies are extended, gruelling affairs, full of lunges and changes in pace, geometry and strategy.
But Nicol, despite the physical demands, seldom looks manic or flustered with the ball in motion and her opponent at very close range.
“Nicol is just a different athlete when it comes to moving on the floor,” said Jay Prince, executive editor of US Squash and the founder and publisher of Squash Magazine.
“She can scramble when she needs to and can get in situations where she has to run a lot, but she has an ability to settle the point down again, like a tennis player who uses a lob to get out of trouble.
She just has this ability to regain her composure in the middle of a rally. She clearly has the foot speed, but also the smarts and the variety of shots.”
She has settled down her season quite nicely after her surprise defeat in March in the semifinals of the World Championships, a title she has won seven times, but could not manage to win in Penang, her home city, even though the Malaysian federation reportedly had posters at the ready in anticipation of her eighth title.
Massaro took the trophy instead, but Nicol beat her in the final of the British Open in May and then in decisive fashion in the final of the Commonwealth Games to cap a tournament in which squash created plenty of buzz and enthusiasm, and even respectable BBC television ratings.
“I hope that got the I.O.C.’s attention,” Nicol said. “Even though I won’t be able to play in it, I still want to see a squash player on that podium representing their country and getting an Olympic medal someday.” – International New York Times