By Richard Eaton
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
“Yes, she can definitely keep her job!” Nicol David joked about Sarah Fitz-Gerald. Well, the sparring partner from Australia had just helped the Malaysian to a fifth World Open title which equalled her own record.
The humor revealed something of both women. David looked more relaxed at Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea Resort with magenta sunsets and a Penang climate, than she ever has before in a World Open, and it helped her to take the title for the first time without dropping a game.
Fitz-Gerald, she reckoned, was free of jealousy about losing her place in the record books. That was all the more remarkable since Fitz would probably have added a title or two had she decided to continue a little longer.
Some former champions feel an almost reptilian envy when losing an accolade as eye-catching as that. Others get a painful reminder that everything moves on. Most feel at least a sad twinge or two.
Californian Elizabeth Ryan felt very emotional about losing her record of 19 Wimbledon titles, which probably contributed to her death the night before Billie-Jean King won her 20th.
But Fitz-Gerald was different. “I can honestly say her result bought a smile to my face,” she said. “I was not surprised to see Nicol equal five world titles and I am confident she will carry on and win more.
“She is a fantastic young lady, who is continually learning and improving. It has been great working with her and hopefully contributing something to her success—and to be able to know her off court too.”
Fitz-Gerald concluded that, “it would be fun to be at the next year’s world open (in Rotterdam) to watch her compete for the sixth.” Let’s hope it’s well paid fun. Fitz-Gerald, along with that other well-known Aussie, coach Liz Irving, probably have made a difference to David.
The diminutive figure looks the furthest ahead of the field than she has ever been, which may be because there are one or two extra options in her game which make her better prepared for contingencies.
David was once just a very good athlete who would contain the opposition until it made mistakes or was worn down. But not now.
New ingredients showed in the authoritative manner with which she won her opener 11-2, 11-3, 11-5 against Farah Abdel Meguid, a promising young Egyptian, and in the way she completely outplayed Low Wee Wern, her Malaysian compatriot 11-2, 11-5, 11-2 in the quarterfinal.
There was also a ruthless change of emphases from containment to steady attack in the second and third games of a 14-12, 11-2, 11-6 semifinal victory against Alison Waters of England and in the later stages of her 11-5, 11-8, 11-6 triumph over Omneya Abdel Kawy, the first Egyptian woman ever to reach a world final.
When David did that it suggested she was on another plane from the others. And it all happened in an environment of the barest rock, clearest sea, and flawless sky, as if the tournament were taking place on another planet.
David’s game was evolving more options and more complexity, as her team had long hoped it might. This has been achieved partly by paying more attention to her schedule, ensuring she arrives at all the tournaments in the best possible condition—something which did not always happen in 2009.
And partly it has been achieved by “making my own time.” She uses her enhanced mobility and increased endurance not merely to tire and outlast opponents but to create more pro-active strategies with a prolonged, error-free high tempo.
Against weaker opponents she uses it to hustle them into poorer shots. Against better ones it enables her to arrive even earlier for stroke production, more often enabling her comfortably to employ the wider range she has been trying to develop.
David will rarely hit rivals off the court, but she has made attacking improvements—trying the first drop, making volley drops cling, masking cross-court drives better – which have helped her move further ahead of the field than ever. She only lost 79 points all tournament.
There was one match where she seemed to fear a challenge, her second round 11-7, 11-7, 11-7 against the former world junior champion Raneem El Weleilly on a suffocatingly humid evening.
And there was only one where, for 20 minutes at least, she actually was challenged. That was during the first game with Waters, the only player even to hold a game point against her.
At these times David scuttled and retrieved like a demented puppet, using her vastly superior athleticism, knowing that even if she lost a game her opponent would probably be spent.
Her saving the game point against Waters seemed to shatter the English woman and it changed the match. There were good reasons why it should.
David also saved five game points in the first game against Waters in a tight Singapore Masters final in July, and saved the one here at 10-9 in the first game.
Waters’ expression suggested she thought a decree had issued from nearby Mount Sinai, designating she should not win game points against David at all. But she may have been affected by the tough open air conditions.
“It was amazingly humid and my racket handle was so sweaty in the first game I had to change it,” said David. “There were drips on the floor and you don’t always get that in the women’s game!”
Sometimes the sound of ball on glass was drowned by jets noisily taking off from the adjacent international airport runway—an image appropriate for how the levels of David’s game rose as the tournament went on
David is not built for overwhelming her best opponents, and the 27-year-old knows she may only be able to use containment in phases as she gets older and her game needs to evolve further.
But her increasing skill at shifting between moods—containment and steady attacking pressure—is starting to work. It is an insurance for the future, an adaption which improves her tactical options, and a potential way of saving energy too.
There was only one brief phase in the middle of the final, as Kawy got a 7-4 second game lead, when the outcome seemed in doubt. But David responded immediately, as she knew she could, by going back to making the rallies more demanding.
“I will just take everything out of my bag and throw it on the court in one last push,” she had said. She had plenty left in the tank after trampling the earlier opposition. When she needed it, there was plenty to push with.
Kawy has certainly increased her capacity to play out longer rallies. She has taken advice from a range of physiological, nutrition and medical experts in how to improve a physique not at all equipped for long distance movement.
She also had an excellent attitude. “I have no choice but to do well,” she said. “I have my family, here, my coaches, my support, my friends, and my supporters. Everyone wants me to do well. So I just have to do it.” And mostly she did.
But against David she had no chance. During most of her 50-month spell as number one she has had a couple of challengers breathing down her neck. Now though she is further ahead of the field than she has ever been.
Of course the absences of the Grinham sisters was a factor in David’s dominance. Rachael Grinham, the 2007 World Open champion, withdrew with a pulled calf muscle, and Natalie, four times a World Open finalist, was playing only her second tournament since giving birth to son Kieran.
Lack of match practice did for Natalie against Low Wee Wern, for she could not convert five successive match points from 10-5 in the final game and slipped to a 9-11, 11-9, 7-11, 11-7, 13-11 defeat.
“Give me time, and there’s no reason why I can’t get back to what I was,” she said. She suggested she might send an e-mail to an even more famous mum—tennis player Kim Clijsters, who recovered to win the US Open twice after having daughter Jada.
The most promising new name was that of Camille Serme. The 21-year-old from France scored her first win over England’s eighth-seeded Laura Massaro by 11-6, 8-11, 12-10, 3-11, 11-6, and then achieved the finest win of her career and the biggest upset of the tournament with a 7-11, 11-7, 7-11, 11-2, 11-5 win over second-seeded Jenny Duncalf.
Serme had trained well, had a good all-round game, and was starting to curb tendencies to “want to play like an Egyptian in the front court—which you can’t do all the time.”
Enter one star, exit another. Vanessa Atkinson, the 2004 World Open champion, produced perhaps her greatest display of courage and commitment to mark her last appreance in a world championship.
The England-born Dutch woman saved two match points against Tenille Swartz, the South African qualifier, saved two more against Natalie Grainger, the former world number one, and then saved fully nine against Waters, in a dramatic and very honorable quarterfinal defeat.
Against Swartz she prevailed 14-12 in the fifth. Against Grainger she survived for an amazing half an hour on the brink during a 2-11, 9-11, 13-11, 13-11, 11-9 triumph. And she almost drove Waters nuts during her 9-11, 11-4, 11-7, 10-12, 11-8 loss.
“I’m calmer now. I used to burn up my energy, expending energy on useless emotions,” Atkinson explained.
“I’ve played 15 World Opens and that is plenty,” the 34-year-old added. “I just wanted to come here and feel that I have done myself justice—and I think I have done that.”
It indicated just how reluctant she was to leave a stage on which she had met so many she liked and admired.
“There’s no better place to create a friendship amongst sportswomen and men than in Sharm, the city of peace,” asserted tournament director Dr Ahmed Said. It had once been an Egyptian town, then became Israeli, and is now Egyptian again.
A cliché? Maybe, and perhaps one about which the people of the world may have millions of doubts. But it seemed to have meaning for the few days that the squash girls were in town.