SHE has won a record-breaking seven World Open titles and established herself as one of the game’s all-time greats. But with Olympic recognition continuing to elude the sport that she loves, Nicol David is now on a personal crusade to change the face of squash forever.
By Michael Catling, republished from Express.co.uk.
As she marks a seventh consecutive year at the top of the world rankings, it is fair to say Nicol David has achieved more than most during her glittering career in the sport.
Heralded by some as the greatest female squash player in history, David has already accumulated an unprecedented 66 titles – some feat for a player who has yet to reach her 30th birthday.
But as she reflects on a career laden with titles and record-breaking achievements, it seems hard to comprehend how such a petite and unassuming 29-year-old could sit just one title away from equalling Jansher Khan’s record of eight World Open titles.
Ruthless on the court yet courteous and incredibly pleasant off it; it feels almost surreal that this is the same person who suffered just two losses last year.
But such is her humbleness; she seems almost embarrassed as she contemplates the possibility of winning her eighth World Open trophy.
“To be honest it still hasn’t really sunk in what has happened in the last year,” admits the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist.
“I had no idea that I would come to this point and have seven world titles. It sounds weird to say it out loud and the fact that a real squash legend like Jansher Khan has eight world titles, I really couldn’t imagine ever getting that close.
“It’s been such a great journey and it’s going to be very challenging now with the younger generation coming through as well. But everything has just happened so fast that I’m still coming to terms with it and I just want to enjoy every moment.”
Owing to her star attraction in the sport however; it seems unlikely David will have much time to reflect upon the scale of her achievements.
Incredibly, this is actually her fifth interview today but as she readjusts her hair in preparation for an upcoming photo shoot, her ever-present smile suggests she is embracing her role as world number one.
Ever since she became the youngest woman to win the World Junior Championships at the age of just 15, her life has changed irreparably from relative anonymity to a sporting icon.
Such is her cult status in Malaysia now; she can barely walk 100 yards without being mobbed by thousands of her adoring fans.
The fact that she became the first recipient of the prestigious Malaysian Order of Merit in 2008 as well – an honour bestowed upon her by the King of Malaysia – has served only to heighten her fame in her home city of Penang.
It is unsurprising then that she has resided in the quieter suburbs of Amsterdam for the past decade. But as she explains, it was a choice made out of necessity, rather than a search for obscurity.
“It was difficult making the move at first but Liz Irving, my coach, had set up a very good base there in Amsterdam and I really wanted to work with her full-time.
“She was coaching the Dutch national team at the time and also coached Vanessa Atkinson as well and helped her to win her first World Open title.
“She just has so much experience behind her and she really helped me to make the transition from juniors to seniors. Since then I’ve gone from strength to strength and she is definitely the best coach that I have ever met.”
Under the guidance of Irving, David’s game immediately flourished and after briefly holding the world number one spot in early 2006, she eventually wrestled it back from Atkinson in the latter stages of that year.
It is a position she has held ever since and after beginning the New Year with her second success at the World Series Finals in London, David’s domination in the women’s game shows no signs of relenting.
It seems an injustice then that the one title she truly craves remains beyond her reach.
For the past decade, the World Squash Federation has lobbied for Olympic inclusion but despite a raft of wholesale changes to the sport, twice their bids have ended in heartache.
However, with a third proposal currently awaiting judgement from the International Olympic Committee, David knows the outcome in September could prove to be a defining moment in her career and the sport.
And after watching her nation win just two medals at the London Games this summer, it is clear the four-time British Open champion will stop at nothing to realise her life-long dream of winning Olympic gold.
“I would do anything to play in 2020. Even if I have to use a walking stick, I will want to play in the Games. That will be my real drive and motivation to stay in the sport for another seven and a half years.
“I’m really passionate about representing the sport and my country and I will do whatever it takes to help squash get into the Games.
“I just want to see the sport keep growing because it has the potential to be one of the top sports in the world.”
From visiting every squash club in Amsterdam to leading a flashmob dance in Malaysia, David’s life has become monopolised by campaigns aimed at enhancing the global appeal of squash.
Only last year, David even went as far as to say that she would happily trade all her world titles for Olympic Gold.
While such a forthright claim was probably issued with a hint of hyperbole, there is no denying that David’s past achievements would pale in comparison to winning an Olympic gold medal.
Nevertheless, as she launches another impassioned plea for the sports inclusion, there is a quiet sense of confidence that the current bid could prove successful.
“I think we have definitely improved on our last two bids and our campaign is so much stronger now,” declares the seven-time WISPA player of the year.
“We have HD coverage, video reviews and spectators are now getting more involved in the game and are even allowed to cheer during rallies.
“I was actually at the Hong Kong Open where they had the inspection and they seemed quite impressed with what we had to offer.
“The sport has everything Olympic sports should have and I think because of the campaign that we have, the players and the community can really associate themselves with something they truly believe in and support.
“Everyone wants to see the sport get into the Games because it deserves its chance now.”
Listening to David speak so fervently about the bid and you would be hard pressed to find someone with the same enthusiasm and passion for the game.
You almost feel compelled to drop everything and race off to the nearest squash court; such is her infectious appetite for the sport. But as she gleefully admits: “It’s what I love.”
Despite her many achievements however, there is a sense that her greatest fulfilment comes from just stepping onto the court.
It seems almost inappropriate then to ask whether she has thought about emulating the achievements of the legendary Heather McKay.
After all, at the age of 29, David certainly has time on her side.
Unsurprisingly though, she feels privileged just to be mentioned in the same breath as one of the game’s all-time greats.
“It’s still hard to comprehend because Heather McKay is a true legend in not just squash but in sport. To be unbeaten in 20 years and to have 16 British Open titles is really special and hard to compare against.
“But I’m just so happy to be in the sport that I love playing and I just want to keep improving my game all the time. I hate losing and if I can make sure my performance is always on top, then the results will hopefully come.”
For now at least, David’s primary concern will be ensuring that squash finally receives the Olympic recognition it undoubtedly deserves. Provided she can win more titles along the way, 2013 could turn all her dreams into a reality.
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