By Richard Eaton
A few days after Nicol David had extended her record of World Open titles to seven it emerged just how much of a watershed in her career this latest success might be.
Instead of travelling from Grand Cayman in the Caribbean to her own island idyll of Penang for Christmas, David went to her Amsterdam apartment and spent the festive period away from home—for the first time in her life.
The decision reflected a number of personal changes, some of them profound. It was also eloquent of a process which has helped David mature as a squash player during the past year. She has certainly needed to do that.
Pressures have been greater than ever upon this piece of ultra-public Asian property. In addition to the relentlessly heavy burden of flag-bearer for an emerging nation, and the frequent media demands and appearance requests for the famous Malaysian, the number of potential rivals is growing.
David lost to Raneem El Weleily of Egypt in Kuala Lumpur and to Alison Waters of England in New York, lending credence to a view that, as she moves through her 30th year, a group of younger players are closing the gap on her.
Yet when it came to the crunch David hardly blinked. There were only two World Open mini-crises—the 5-7 second game deficit during her 11-6, 11-8, 11-6 win over Laura Massaro, another Englishwoman, in the final, and the loss of the third game to Madeline Perry of Ireland in the quarterfinals. Both were handled with a very evident sense of self-possession.
Earlier, when David was confronted with just about the toughest first round possible, against Omneya Abdel Kawy, a World Open runner-up only two years previously, the champion was hardly bothered.
Throughout the entire tournament David appeared in control, not only of herself but of her opponents’ game. Given that hyper-tension has occasionally been her worst enemy, this was both admirable and intriguing.
It may partly have emanated from an increasing range of tactical options. There may also have been a benefit from altered emphasis in her tournament priorities. More significantly though, David had a new perspective on who she is and what she does.
There were hints of this in the way she moved, in her expressions, and her post-match summaries. But the new Christmas arrangements in the Dutch capital offered a stronger clue.
“Of course Penang is my home. But I am growing older. I am growing as a person,” David said.
“I have had my own apartment for a year. I now have a group of people I am close to and have a good time with, and I have my own friends.”
Just how significant a greater appreciation of her adopted home might be came with hints that it paralleled her work with Frank Cabooter, a sports psychologist.
Cabooter works at the University of Amsterdam, specializing in burn-out and depression, and has helped David discover that greater self-knowledge helps her deal with all the increasing pressures.
“In the last two to three years he has given me a lot of insight into who I am, and how I can look at understanding myself better,” she confided. “Not just on a squash basis, but on a personal note.
“It means you have to admit to things you may not have seen or known. At the same time you can improve yourself if you can adjust. It’s so fascinating, the mind and how it works.
“We go into what works for me, what goes through my mind, and how I manage it,” added David who, after more than six years as World No. 1, needs to work out how her strengths and weaknesses are evolving.
“As time goes on we all change,” she went on. “I’m trying to use that to my advantage. As we grow older there are lots of things to learn from. And to understand what I should do as a squash player, and for my own growth.
“You have to admit to things you may not have seen or known. But at the same time you can improve yourself if you can adjust. It’s so fascinating (leaning about) our mind and how it works. If you are in a good state, everything goes from there.
“I have learnt so much about myself and about mental preparation, and all the different techniques. All this changed me and kept me in tune (with my feelings).”
So how else have emotional changes been reflected in professional changes? Well, in physiology, and attention to recovery; in tactics, by introducing more variations to a game which has relied heavily on superb athleticism, and in emphases in her scheduling (defeats in non-major events may no longer be quite so important), and, most notably in psychology.
This has fed into the increasingly subtler on-court nexus—early ball hustling, periods of containment which she does so brilliantly, more changes of pace, and quicker realization of when phases of a match have become important.
It is true that it also helped David to feed off the vibes of the warm climate, the Caribbean music, the friendly dolphins and the seaside atmosphere, some of which reminded her of the friendly ambience back in Penang.
But an enhanced sense of self was feeding her too. She showed some patiently cerebral tactical choices as well as typically well-balanced movement when Massaro took a lead in that important second game of the final.
This produced a blend of containment, well-timed drops, and lightning quick changes of direction which prevented the third-seeded Englishwoman from gaining a hold on the match.
Against Perry, when David lost her only game of the tournament in an 11-3, 11-7, 9-11, 11-3 victory, she produced an immediate response, but a different one to the Massaro match.
Then she was meticulous. Now she ramped up the intensity, hurtling into the fourth game and, stemming a trickle of errors on the backhand side, closed out the match with a whirl.
It was different again in the semifinals against Jenny Duncalf, the sixth-seeded Englishwoman, the winning 11-7, 11-4, 11-2 score-line hinting at how David’s control increasingly tightened. Initially she moved to the ball fast and early, denying Duncalf time to play a nicely creative game. Then she found different ways to finish rallies as the match went on.
As David’s sense of well-being grew, it was expressed by an instinctive between-the-legs volley in reaction to a Duncalf drive unexpectedly hurtling down the middle of the court. It helped win David the rally, and brought yells and roars that reverberated along the palm branches and across the gently rippling water.
The previous day David negotiated the tournament’s most potentially treacherous change—from club courts to the all-glass show court—without fear or worry, scoring a comfortable 9-3, 9-2, 9-3 win against Annie Au. The Hong Kong player had become a regular in the world’s top ten, but was allowed no chance to show how she had done it.
David struck the ball so rhythmically that it was easy to forget about altered playing conditions. “They made the ball bouncy, but at the same time this is a glass court, so if you play your shots it goes in,” she said enthusiastically.
David had swept aside a potential banana skin in the first round, her 11-8, 11-5 11-5 win over Kawy, the Egyptian, suggesting a new emphasis in her preparation. “I’ve tended to start slowly in some first round matches and I’ve been looking at that,” she said. “The main thing was to remember the work that I had been doing, and to stick to my game plan.”
That was to find a tight line and keep Kawy, with her outstandingly good hands, away from the front. It was also to grow a feeling of calmness acquired from focusing on a plan she believed in.
Only two weeks before, Kawy, accelerating her recovery from injury, had beaten three top-six players—Massaro, Joelle King, and Alison Waters. Suddenly that was not so easy to recall.
Waters had been a wannabe, along with Raneem El Weleily, who made life so difficult for David in the World Open build-up. Her losses in New York and Kuala Lumpur had been described in some Malaysian media as “shocking,” and imbued with all sorts of melodramatic significance.
But this time neither the Englishwoman nor the Egyptian reached a stage where they could challenge David. Waters was beaten by Duncalf in the quarterfinals, despite being two games up, and El Weleily lost to Massaro in the semis, despite holding a match point at 11-10 in the final game.
At that vital moment the workman-like Massaro became thrillingly bold, risking a low volley and guiding it to a winning length. By pushing through to a 5-11, 11-9, 12-14, 11-4, 13-11 win she denied Weleily the final showdown with David which the seedings said she should have.
David’s other potential rivals disappointed. Nour El Sherbini, the 17-year- old British Open runner-up who has been touted as heir apparent, lost three straight to Perry, while the fifth-seeded King lost in five to Natalie Grinham, the four-times former finalist.
This brought a contrasting tale of two sisters. Natalie admitted that, even as a 34-year-old mum, she had still not entirely stopped thinking about winning the world title. But Rachael Grinham almost seemed to have forgotten that she had done so.
World champion in 2007, the el- der sibling was two games and 10-6 up against Nicolette Fernandes, a qualifier—and still somehow lost. Her 3-11, 6-11, 12-10, 11-5, 11-9 defeat must have been particularly hard to take, for Fernandes, a Guyanaian, is also the Caribbean champion, and her success was celebrated greatly, cheers echoing around Camana Bay.
Afterwards the tournament had other echoes. David’s rivals may take longer to shift her than they think. Whether or not squash’s Olympic bid proves successful later this year David will, she says, commit to a career in squash for as long as possible, and hopefully “five to seven years.”
If she achieves this, which looks possible, David would be almost 37—close to the age at which Heather McKay, the legendary Australian, retired after winning the first two of the fledgling World Open championships, back in 1979.
Growing self-knowledge is propelling David not only towards greatness, it seems, but towards longevity.