Stylist & creative direction Ibnu Aswan
Photographer Kim Mun @ Hopscotch Studio
Make-up artist Joey Yap
Hair Bibian Leong
Stylist’s assistant Rayven Raj
Location space National Squash Centre, Bukit Jalil
This story was first published in Prestige Malaysia May 2019 issue
Datuk Nicol David, formally the world’s number one squash champion, came into contact with squash at the tender age of five. It was her father Desmond, former state athlete and footballer, who first brought Nicol and her two older sisters Lianne and Cheryl to a squash court in Penang built by his friend. As the youngest in the family, Nicol aspired to be as good as her sisters in squash and followed in their footsteps.
“I had a benchmark to follow suit and I always wanted to be just as good in squash as my sisters. When I did surpass them, I knew that if I can do that with my sisters, I can do more for myself,” says Nicol who started playing professionally at the age of eight. “My parents never pressured us to do anything other than what we love doing and told us that if you put your heart and soul into what you want to do, you are going to be successful so there was no expectation from them,” Nicol says, attributing her success today to her parents who created a loving and healthy environment when she was growing up.
“If you tell a kid you get to travel around the world to play something that you love doing and meet all these new different friends and just have fun, I think everyone will take that opportunity.”
Her success story may read like a dream but the road to world number one, a title she successfully defended for nine years, has proven to be an arduous journey as Nicol confesses that she had a lot of growing up to do. “I am my biggest critic of course,” she tells me. “That’s what made me so particular on how I push myself with my training and setting goals to strive for. Everything was never enough, I wanted more and to push myself further and further. That’s why I want to set the bar high but when you’re up there in that number one position, there is no one else to compare to but yourself. So you try to improve yourself as though you are the person to beat, finding ways to be better and stronger and you find that nothing can faze you if you keep the consistency right,” she says candidly.
Nicol also opens up about the lowest point in her career when she lost the world number one position after her nine-year reign. “The hardest part about being your own critic is when things don’t go your way and when I lost that number one position, it was a struggle for me to accept the notion of not being in that position anymore. I was pushing myself but not necessarily in the right direction that I wanted to but that was all I knew and I learned so much from that process of growing up. I found personal growth in that process and came to understand myself better. Finally I came to peace with the fact that I have achieved so much yet I never fully recognised that myself until I took a step back. This could have only happened if I was off that number one position where I can appreciate what I’ve accomplished, so everything happened for a reason.”
Through that experience, she found anew perspective and the strength to rise again, reinventing herself in the process. It was a breakthrough moment especially for the squash athlete as she has always been at the top of her mental game, constantly fine-tuning and keeping her emotions in check.
“If you don’t have the heart and passion for something you love doing, then you can’t fully commit to the other two aspects of power and determination.”
“I was so meticulous in my mental preparation and I had a system that I didn’t want anything to get in my way,” she says of her world number one reign. “When I was competing, I never fully got into that part of me because I was worried if I let emotions in or if I do something new, everything will change and I have no control over it. When you work on yourself, it’s a scary place and things will definitely change, but I was prepared to perform maybe not at my best but to fully learn about myself better and that was definitely needed at that time. I am very thankful that I took that step to make the difference learning and growing as a person so that now I see myself in a whole different light,” Nicol opens up, revealing that her greatest fear initially was losing a tournament.
“Now I’ve come full circle and realise that squash is not just my life, it is a part of me and it has given me a platform to do so much more and make changes. I now finally recognise I can play that role and be an ambassador for change.”
To date, Datuk Nicol David has won 81 tour titles and reached 102 finals, winning 567 of her 680 matches on the tour since turning professional in 2000. I ask if she would ever want to revisit a match she played and one particular match comes to her mind – the last world championship title win in 2014 against opponent Raneem el Weleily. Nicol has previously announced that the match stood out as the most memorable match in her entire squash career.
“At that very moment, I did not know what went on in those last stages of the match where I was four match points down. Everything was a blur. I just went in there, focused on the task at hand. I would like to relive that and feel the whole environment again because I don’t fully understand or grasp what happened. All I knew was that I had to chase that ball down and if I could be the last one hitting the ball then I would be fine. I didn’t know what happened after that and I won the world title.”
Like most athletes, Nicol has also acknowledged her special profound relationship with her coach Liz Irving who has changed her perception of the game altogether since she was just 19 years old. Being a female athlete, she stresses that it was crucial for a female coach to be involved in her training.
“We have more power than we think and know, so it’s really important to be kind to ourselves first so we don’t have to feel like we have to fit into a box that people expect us to be.”
“I strongly encourage more female coaches to get involved because itis very different to coach a female as comparedto a male athlete. Having Liz on board as mycoach, she could really share her own experienceon tour and I could relate to that. She fully understands what goes on inside the mind of a female athlete and all the emotions, moods andintensity of training. Women will put in full effort in their training and though the workload won’t be the same as men, we can perform just as well as the men, if we are given the right direction,” Nicol stresses as she credits Liz for playing ahuge role in her transition to the next phase of professional squash.
While we’re on the subject of gender disparity, I probe Nicol further on whether it was more difficult for her to maintain her mental strength as women tend to be more intuitive and emotional as compared to men. She agrees to some extent that in terms of being practical on court, women have more difficulty keeping it simple. “I don’t think I can generalise what a female and a male athlete have in the sporting world, but what I can share is that all of us have those qualities, and how we use them the best way and to combine them at the right time is so crucial. Each day is going to be a different day so you can never expect what’s to come,” she muses.