Nicol David Feature

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Nicol David Feature

A new regular feature to the
Squash Player website.

We will now be posting the
Player of the Month article
as published in the
Squash Player Magazine

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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.

Nicol David

At the 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 revealing.

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 court.

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 alienation in

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 tournament.”

A convent-educated 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 player.”

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 David enjoy
a moment together after
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 been.

“To 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.

“Nicol’s still 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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