In a different league

Published : Mar 25, 2010 00:00 IST

Predictably, for someone who’s been World No. 1 since August 2006, and elected Player of the Year at the WISPA awards for the last five years, Nicol David doesn’t drop a single game in winning the Chennai Open title, her 42nd on the WISPA Tour. Karthik Krishnaswamy catches up with the ace player.

Great athletes are reckoned to be products of single-mindedness. This is true up to a point. For, there are two kinds of single-mindedness. The first kind connotes the dogged toil involved in processes like dieting and preparing for examinations. The second kind, which distinguishes the elite athlete, is the fascinated absorption of a child at play.

“When the others grew tired and went home and there was no one else to play with I used to play my own Test matches on the porch of our house, using a broom handle or a stick as the bat and a marble as the ball. I would arrange the pot plants to represent fielders and try to find the gaps as I played my shots,” wrote Brian Lara of his childhood, in his book ‘Beating the Field’.

Watching Nicol David at practice evokes this image. It is the morning of the World number one’s first round match at the Chennai Open squash championships, and the Centre Court at the Indian Squash Academy reverberates to the rat-a-tat of volleys bouncing endlessly between Nicol’s racquet and the front wall. Perhaps she’s keeping count in her head, like a street footballer playing keepy-uppy.

“For me it’s not really repetitive,” she says. “I just enjoy it, and every time I do a training session, it’s actually something new. I’m working on a different angle all the time; I’m trying to cover every angle possible.”

Doing that day in and day out — that’s not a problem at all? “Well, I just love it,” she says, breaking into a giggle.

In competitive play, the other things that put the 26-year-old Malaysian at a level far above anyone else on the WISPA (Women’s International Squash Players’ Association) Tour become apparent. The shot-making, the positional awareness, the decision-making, and above all the movement.

Watching Sachin Tendulkar rock back to pull Shane Warne is to marvel at the speed of his footwork. “How did he get there?” you wonder. It’s much the same watching Nicol recover ground after an opponent has caught her off-balance momentarily. Her low centre of gravity helps, but beyond that it is innate, the way she changes direction in an instant and then tricks the viewer into thinking she’s extended her limbs an inch in getting to what had initially looked out of reach.

Predictably, for someone who’s been World No. 1 since August 2006, and elected Player of the Year at the WISPA awards for the last five years, Nicol doesn’t drop a single game in winning the Chennai Open title, her 42nd on the WISPA Tour.

Excerpts from the interview.

Question: People talk about dealing with defeat, but what does it take to deal with winning all the time? You’ve gone on two unbeaten streaks of more than 50 games, you won pretty much every single tournament in 2008...

Answer: I didn’t count my run of wins because it was irrelevant at the time. I was just working towards the match and towards the tournament and the more I built up towards that everything turned out the way it should be. That was my main focus. At the end, people started putting the numbers in — and then when you have that loss you just regroup and re-analyse your game and refresh when you step on court.

Do you find it hard sometimes to motivate yourself, and does it seem that there isn’t enough of a challenge?

No, it’s always a motivation every time you step on court because there’s always something to do with each player and you have to always pinpoint what their weaknesses are, what strong points you can use against them and how you can sustain that, and that’s the ultimate challenge.

Has there been any point where you’ve fallen out of love with the game?

You have moments where you have to step back a little bit because it’s a lot of squash sometimes, but then you know your mind needs that space, you take a little bit of time off and then you come back and you’re refreshed and you’re ready to go.

You’ve also achieved a lot of success at a very young age (World Junior champ at 15, World Champion and number one at 21). How did you deal with that?

When I was young everything came a bit natural to me. I just took one tournament, said I wanna do well, and I went in there, gave it my best, and everything followed. But when you’re up on top of the world, you have to reinvent a little bit, you have to step up your game because the girls — they know your weaknesses, so you have to come up with something extra.

What’s it like living in Amsterdam? A lot of the top players seem to be living there now?

Well, a lot of them are there now because there’s a good league going on and also the leagues around Europe are pretty strong. It’s a great city, it’s quite easy to get around and it’s a small country and it’s just a nice atmosphere to train in.

And your coach (former World number two) Liz Irving — what’s it like working with her?

Liz has been in the top ranks for 15 years, she knows exactly what it is to be world number two and what it takes. She’s passed on a lot of experience and that was the transition stage that I needed to go from juniors to seniors, because there’s a lot of things to think on and she could offer that. She’s very specific on technique and tactics, and if you can be solid on that then everything else flows from there.

You’re a household name back in Malaysia. What’s it like when you make trips back home?

I’m in Malaysia when tournaments come around, or mostly to spend time with family and friends. It’s been really good that the public is quite aware of what’s going on in the squash world and are so supportive, and you just take that as positive energy on court.

You even have a court (at the National Squash Centre in Bukit Jalil) named after you?

That was quite an unusual experience for me. It was very overwhelming. They did a really spectacular event, and it was nice to have my parents there to actually witness it all. It was quite emotional on my side because I never expected anything like that to happen to me, and at my age. It’s still hard to comprehend.

In 2006, you won the World Open for the second time, beating Natalie Grinham 1-9, 9-7, 3-9, 9-5, 9-2 in an epic final at Belfast. Has the change in the scoring system* reduced the possibility of such matches?

It’s half-and-half because in the original nine-point in-and-out scoring, you can have a lot of good comebacks, but with the PAR (point-a-rally) scoring you have to really be sharp from the word go, and you cannot let your guard down, and points will go if you’re not alert straightaway. So this keeps you really sure in your mind that you have to go in there completely focussed and stay on top of your opponent, and when it’s at deuce it’s very exciting for the public.

*Earlier, players could win points only on their serve. In the new scoring system, adopted by the World Squash Federation in 2008, every rally counts for points.

Has that changed your game in any way?

A little bit, because you have to be more aware of what shot you’re playing, you have to work on ball control better and be more consistent on shots.

How important is it for squash to get into Olympics?

It’s the pinnacle of sports for any athlete because you are compared with the best in the world in every sport possible and to be a gold medallist in the Olympics, you are up in the history books of sporting personalities.

Would that help in getting squash stars more recognition? You could easily have won the Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year by now...

I think to even be part of the Laureus Sports Awards Ceremony would be a dream come true. I think it’s very focussed on... it all depends on how their qualifications and nominations are. If squash is in the Olympics, then it would be recognised by every national body in the world, and you get the right funding, it would be a real boost — so yeah, hopefully that will happen some day.

I’ve read that you carry a sketchbook wherever you go. What sort of sketches do you do?

I like to just doodle, filling time just messing around, maybe creating some new, fun furniture or product design, or whatever that catches my eye.

And I also read that you’d like to open a design studio someday?

Yeah, hopefully in the future, after squash I can get a line of either clothing or furniture or products that people will be interested in.

You’re also a UNDP (United Nations Development Program) goodwill ambassador. What does that involve?

They basically appointed me to try and reach out more to the youth, and try to pass on the message of what they are and what their development goals are, and the UNDP approaches to everything. So they were trying to get me to do certain events that involve college students, trying to spread the message out there, to not only just the youth but also the general public with the events they have. At the moment it’s quite tricky to be involved with too many events because of my squash but I try my best.

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