Nicol David Feature
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Home and Away
Nicol David has retained her world title and
is the undisputed world no.1. Richard Eaton talks to the World Champion
about her home in Penang, Malaysia, her move to Amsterdam, and the special
relationship with her coach, Liz Irving.
Women’s World Open 2006 in Belfast, Nicol David held Natalie Grinham at bay
to retain her title. The Squash Player’s panel of international experts have
voted her Player of the Month.
The 60 seconds which followed Nicol David’s win over Natalie Grinham in
Belfast’s World Open final in November were surprising and uniquely
After so fine a victory in so important a match, you might have expected
David’s smile to illuminate the whole of Ulster Hall; instead she was
paralysed in movement and expression, unable to react or even to leave the
It was a worrying response, and one which some spectators may have missed
because an empathetic Grinham slipped unobtrusively back into the court and
ushered the champion off.
“I sort of couldn’t let go,” said David, suggesting she had been hanging on
too tight, both to a match which almost got away from her and to the
straitjacket into which she had crammed her emotions.
The slimly built, vulnerable-looking 23-year-old has become a unique hope –
for a nation, for a continent, and for women. No Asian female has reached
the top in squash before; few outside China have done so in any sport.
So euphoric was the Malaysian response to David’s capture of the world title
12 months previously that the ensuing public obligations threw her schedule
completely out of kilter.
Her failure at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne three months later
brought another powerful national response – this time mostly pejorative. It
was largely this that made her screw herself up so tightly.
A half-realization that such onerous responsibilities were coming her way
probably influenced her decision to move from Penang to Amsterdam four years
ago. Already, some of those who had previously called themselves fans had
been getting on her back after her unexpected failure to win the 2002 Asian
Games in Busan.
Although David was young and dangerous, and infiltrating the top 20 with her
speed and willingness to learn, progress was being held back by flaws in her
swing, shortcomings in her capacity to attack, and resulting limitations in
her tactical options. But she had seen how others, especially Vanessa
Atkinson, had improved at Liz Irving’s school of excellence in the Dutch
capital, and reckoned it was the time to see if the Australian could have a
similar effect on her.
David’s belief must have been strong, because moving to Amsterdam
involved relinquishing for long periods much of what she most loved,
including friends, parents and surroundings – a turtle-shaped island with
the largest temple complex in South-East Asia, surrounded by great natural
beauty and edged by wonderful beaches.
It was here that she had learnt to play with bits of other people’s broken
rackets patched together to make an implement suitable for a five-year old.
She has never thrown it away.
The dark, damp
northern climate, with its grey skies and buildings, and the sense of
Nicol with her proud parents
after the final.
a European industrial
city, with its professional indifference and its crowded loneliness, must
have felt like a punishment.
“Homesick? I used to
be,” David admitted. “Close to the time I go home it hits me, but when I’m
training here my focus is on the squash and getting ready for the next
girl, David achieved top grades throughout her schooling and it gave her
inner strength, both spiritual and mental. What these qualities needed was
sympathetic, disciplined and knowledgeable leadership.
She got it. When David
went to Amsterdam she was merely promising. Now she is world no.1 and could
become one of the most famous women players of all time.
“I was looking for
something new and Liz’s experience on the circuit is so wide,” said David.
“She brought everything together – the Egyptian style, the English style –
and she tells me how to compete with the top players. She has taught me how
to use my speed efficiently and given me more options on the ball. My shots
are being used more and I am more consistent. I am definitely a better
Many remember Irving
as a fine world no.2, who competed till well into her thirties and who, but
for self-doubts, might well have limbed that last rung.
How did this engaging,
talented, persistent, and immensely watchable, but flawed and eventually
slightly rudderless Australian become one of the world’s most influential
coaches? Perhaps partly because of these failings.
Irving understood how
lost some women could feel on tour when they were struggling, and what the
remedies might be. And because she is a good communicator, she knew how to
supply them. She also had a little luck.
“I had an opportunity,” she said. “I got to coach at Squash City,
a fabulous squash centre. I came for one year and I’ve been here for seven!
“Originally I worked
with Vanessa [Atkinson, the 2004 world champion] for three or four years. I
really needed that, and it made me think that maybe I should give back more
[to the game].”
Irving was soon
rewarded with the role of Dutch national coach.
She even felt enough of a fixture to start learning Dutch, taking a
week-long immersion course, reportedly, in a nunnery ...
The essence of her success has been keeping her group small. She has just
six full-timers – Nicol David, Annelize Naude, Orla Noom, Aisling Blake, Trisha Chuah, and
Louise Crome – and won’t go beyond that number.
“The girls work very well
together,” Irving explained.
Nicol’s inspirational around them. She helps them a lot, she’s a
sweetie. Once you have a close relationship with a player, you learn to
understand her,” she stresses. “You see what’s going on.
“And players have to
trust you. If you’re radically changing their technique, which takes months
not weeks, they have to trust that what you’re telling them will eventually
improve their game.”
When David arrived,
Irving saw that some of her strengths and weaknesses had developed from
having played on warm courts during formative years. “She did way too much
running,” Irving said. “We’ve worked on refining her movement, so she’s more
efficient and doesn’t have to do so much. Being in position earlier is the
key. And better tactical awareness.”
Nicol battles with Natalie Grinham
in the World Open final.
Together they also
began combining the development
of the volley with a range of tactical options that this shot makes
possible. “She didn’t volley because she was used to seeing the ball go
flying past (on warm courts),” Irving said.
She also improved David’s swing, “with much earlier racket preparation and
more rotation in the body. She used to really struggle with that. It came
from having a hot ball and rushing at it.”
But the mini-crisis created by the Commonwealth Games loss brought a
reassessment. “When I saw Nicol in Melbourne there wasn’t any fire,” said
Irving. “She’d had a lot
of pressure put on her. They’d given
her so much support,” she added, referring to rewards of 200,000 ringgits
from the Malaysian government and 30,000 ringgits
and two apartments from the Penang government, “and they expected results –
but it doesn’t always work like that. With Nicol it was really simple. There
was too much pressure and too many commitments, which disrupted training for
two or three months. That’s way too long.”
The crisis brought
about another major change. “She realized that for the next couple of years
she would have to spend more time over here, developing herself as a
player,” explained Irving.
Liz Irving and Nicol
a moment together
David wins the World Open final.
This meant developing
her volleying game a little faster. Able to help with that better than
anyone, was one of Irving’s long-time friends, Sarah Fitz-Gerald, five times
world champion and one of the greatest volleying attackers there has ever
go on court with
someone like Sarah, who punishes anything that’s loose, is a great help,”
said Irving. “Really no women are doing that now.
learning and developing a better technique. We’re in a process which has to
continue for another year or two.”
If this happens, David
could get a step or two ahead of the field. “It will be a bit of a wake-up
call for the other players,” said Irving. “Like Susan [Devoy], who brought
the level up a notch, Nicol can raise the standard. And when she has, maybe
she can spend more time at home.”
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