Champions don’t grow on trees, especially champions like Nicol David, who has been World No. 1 in Women’s Squash since August 2006. Ooi Kee Beng tries to find out what makes her tick, and tick so consistently and impressively. What he finds out is that although this 26-year-old already dominates her game globally, her best is yet to come.
OKB: I had a very long chat with your father, Desmond, a couple of days ago. I was hoping to find out what he considers to be the special elements that make Nicol David the indomitable champion in women’s squash that she is. If anyone knows what these are, it would be him; and your mother of course.
Only late in the conversation did it become clear to me that there were at least three factors that help explain your achievements.
First, you grew up in a family that is and was passionate about sports. I am told that your great grandfather did not care much for sports. Despite his attempts at discouraging his children to engage in sports, your grandfather, A.C. David, actually reacted strongly against that, and he in turn supported his children in their sporting interests.
With such encouragement, your father became an excellent player in hockey and football. He was in fact famous before your time as the goalkeeper of Penang’s football team, and also represented the country.
Your parents showered all you three girls with a lot of love and attention, and also encouraged the three of you to engage in sports.
You, being the youngest, therefore had this active existential space laid out for you by your parents and your sisters. This healthy social atmosphere nurtured you in all sorts of ways; not least of all, in allowing you without fear or favour to develop a strong sense of competitiveness.
Second, you were lucky in coming into contact with squash enthusiasts such as Mr Oh Siong Tit, who were trying to interest young Penangites in the game, and your early coach, Ms Ee Phoeh Hoon.
Finally, your father remembers you as an extremely focused baby who would watch her favourite TV programmes intensely, even at the age of six months. He shared with me the fact that you, despite being a very nice person, have a real ‘killer instinct’. Unlike your sisters, you did not, and do not, mind beating your opponent “9-0, 9-0, 9-0”.
To what extent am I correct in coming to these conclusions?
Nicol: Yeah, I had a very good upbringing. My sisters were always there. They always enjoyed the game, and I wanted to be like them. And despite the difference in standard, they would nevertheless go out on the court with me, train with me and help me along. That’s how I started building up my game, and got better and better.
OKB: You grew up with squash then? It’s like the air you breathe, isn’t it?
Nicol: Pretty much so. Here [Penang International Squash Centre, Bukit Dumbar] was like a second home. All the people here, the community, were great. For example, Ms Ee, our coach; she pretty much created a family feel here. Everybody coming here got along very well.
That was the beauty of the place, it was like a home. Of course, with one’s sisters around as well, one was halfway there.
OKB: Would you credit Ms Ee for laying at least some of the foundation for your excellent squash game?
Nicol: Yeah, I think she started everyone up. She started the foundation to develop junior players, to get them to work together and enjoy themselves. That was the feeling I always had when I came here.
OKB: Was there anything in the beginning in your game that you remember having to work hard to overcome?
Nicol: I just enjoyed the whole thing, being with all these people, of all ages. You learned from the older players and they would look after you. It was all fun.
The thing is, I never thought too much about it, I would just go in, and I wanted to win, and I would give it my all. And that panned out alright. So when I started going overseas, and it was all working out as well, I thought it was even more fun. I was meeting new people, new faces.
It’s when you move from one stage to the next, like going professional, that things change, and you have to work harder.
OKB: What fascinates me about your career is, one can become a champion, that’s one thing. You had a good start, a loving family, etc. , all that. But to stay there for so long at your young age is awe-inspiring. That is quite an achievement.
Nicol: I never expected it to happen so soon. My coach Liz Irving, who has tremendous experience on the circuit, has an ability to see potential and she knew where I needed to develop. But even for her, things have happened more quickly than she had expected.
Becoming world number one and world champion for the first time [in January 2006, staying there for three months] was of course overwhelming, because that’s what you had been dreaming about, and that’s what you had been aspiring to. Getting there actually drains you, and after that you have to feel for what the next step should be. And when you get back there the second time [in August 2006, after falling to No. 2 for four months], you feel justified and you know what competition is all about, and are ready to move forward.
OKB: Your father told me the expert opinion is that you will peak as a player only in a couple of years. That must scare the competition quite a bit.
Nicol [laughs]: I know that I am still learning more about myself, about how I can handle the professional circuit. I am trying to be an all-round squash player, and picking up more bits and pieces to add to my game. It will all take time.
Even when you are peaking, I am sure there will still be room for improvement.
OKB: So the resistance – the competition – folded more easily than you thought.
Nicol [laughs]: Yeah, yeah. Exactly [laughs].
OKB: You don’t seem to be suffering from the pressure.
Nicol: The more you grow, the more you just have to learn as much as possible from people around you. You want to bring the right team together, you want to create an atmosphere where you feel comfortable, and everything is well looked after, so that you can go do your job; put all that training and all that support to good use. You just go for it. Like they say, you can’t do more than your best, you know.
OKB: I hear that one of Ms Ee’s methods was to promise each of you – winner and loser – 20 cents for every point you win. That made you take one point at the time, and every point actually mattered. That’s a brilliant idea, isn’t that?
Nicol: It’s about the small steps. We tend to see too big and picture, you want to win. But how do you make sure of that? It’s all about the small steps, one at a time. Sometimes we lose that focus, but that’s what we want to develop. It’s the mental attitude you take on for every match that makes the difference.
OKB [who has played squash about a total of five times in his life]: I can imagine that when you are 8-1 down, you might just give up if you don’t think in small steps.
Nicol: Yes, you have to keep going at it, one point at a time. In the meantime, you have to remember that the person who is leading by 8-1, being far ahead, might have lost her focus on the small steps. This gives you an advantage.
OKB: Oh, I see.
Nicol: It’s all a learning experience. You learn from your losses and your other experiences so that they won’t happen again.
OKB: Any regrets or disappointments?
Nicol: No, I don’t think so. What I have been doing has gotten me very far [laughs]. It’s all part and parcel of the whole experience. You try to be ready for whatever comes your way. You will have your ups and downs, but you are working towards something, so at the end of the day you can’t go too far wrong.
OKB: People say its 90 percent perseverance 10 percent talent. What do say to that?
Nicol: Yea, it’s a lot of hard work. You have to work at it. At the same time, with the hard work, your sense of accomplishment when you win is all that much greater.
I have always wanted that feeling of doing well, and achieving things. That’s what drives me to keep training, and working hard.
OKB [who was trounced in all the five squash games he has ever played]: Do you sometimes feel sorry for the people you trounce?
Nicol [laughs]: Well, no. They know what it’s all about when they enter the game. You have to keep making the point clear to the opponent; “I am not letting this go until the very last point”.
OKB: Are you always so competitive?
Nicol: In everything. Not with my sisters though. But they always let me have my way. We are very, very close. Strangely, there is never any sibling rivalry between us, there is no jealousy. Three years in between Lianne and Cheryl, and between Cheryl and me; so, a six-year difference between oldest and youngest.
We feel that whoever is winning is the one who is playing better. Friends of mine seem to think that whatever I do I have to get right.
So yes, I do seem to want to do well in everything I get into.
OKB: At the same time, you have a reputation for being an extremely nice person. Being competitive does not mean being nasty, obviously. You do not seem driven by outside pressure; it’s all coming from within you, all inherent, isn’t it.
Nicol: Every competitive sport you go into is a mental challenge. You go onto the court, and beyond the physical part, you have to be exerting yourself mentally. The challenge is to be prepared when you go in there. You never know. You just have to be prepared.
OKB: Do the handsome young men of Amsterdam, where you do your training, distract you in any way?
Nicol [laughs]: No, no time for that. I am never in any one place nowadays for more than three weeks. After I took my SPM exams, with support from the Sports Council, and support from my parents, I decided to compete full-time for a year. It was not an easy decision; you never know in advance how things will go.
But my ranking shot up tremendously that year, and so I have continued.
At the moment, the intensity is very high. My focus is on squash. Later on, I will go into something that interests me, perhaps in some artistic field, possibly clothing product design.
OKB: What angers you? What saddens you?
Nicol: Not much actually. The difficult part is handling a defeat. And since I don’t want that to happen again, that’s why I still do what I do. You have to go through your defeat and find your way, and you grow from it.
I meet so many different and interesting people, and there is no reason to be angry about anything .Why waste my time with that? There is so much else going your way.
OKB: With your success, do you feel that you are being cocooned, shut out from normal living?
Nicol: Strangely, no, I don’t. I still feel I have a lot to learn. I have good friends, and my family will always keep me in my place. I am comfortable with that. That won’t change. It’s just that the appreciation from the public and people around you is a big bonus. The positiveness surrounding you and the appreciation people show you, all that you can take onto the court and you have that extra edge of having people behind you.
But the reality of it is that, I am just a squash player, like many others.
OKB: What else would you be looking forward to.
Nicol: I am involved with the UNDP. I am their Goodwill Ambassador. If I can later on have more time to give something back. Also, if I can one of those who can bring squash into the Olympics, that would be great.
OKB: Now, with your fame, do you get suspicious of people.
Nicol: You are open to things, you know what’s there, go according to who you know and are comfortable with. The more you travel and the older you get, the more experienced you become. You don’t get suspicious, you just see more clearly; what you can expect, and what people expect of you.
The main thing is to form a good relationship with people, and take it from there.
OKB: You seem prepared for fame from the start.
Nicol: Well, I was taught well [laughs].
OKB: How does hotel life get to you?
Nicol: From the beginning, I travelled and saw a lot of the cities where the tournaments were held. I always stayed till the end, so I had opportunities for sightseeing. I wasn’t winning all the time then. Now, I still travel to these same cities that I have seen a lot of. So I just focus on squash.
I do try between match and training to move around, and see some sights that I miss.
OKB: I understand that you have to do all the arranging on your own when you travel to compete.
Nicol: All the squash players have to do that. It keeps you on your toes, all the things you have to look after. You are responsible for yourself. You can’t expect people to be doing all that for you. In the beginning, you do get some help.
OKB: Talking to you now, I see I don’t have to ask you the next question, which is “Do you ever feel you are losing touch with reality?” I already have the answer.
Nicol [laughs]: Well…
OKB: Your father told me that whenever you come back to Penang, you have to drop by a Char Koay Teow stall on the way home for a meal. Is that right?
Nicol: Yes, that’s true. Being away from Penang so much, any such stall will do [laughs]. Also, my mum is a good cook, and she makes sure she makes me all my favourite dishes when I am home.
At the same, one of the good things about travelling is that you get to learn about new cultures. I always eat the local dishes.
During training, I eat a bit better, but when I am back in Penang on holiday, like now, I let go a bit.
OKB: Music favourites? Films? Books?
Nicol: R &B, hiphop. Sometimes chill-out music like jazz or lounge music.
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell, who does research on how our minds work, and brings in a lot of factors, in books like “Outliers” or “Blink”.
OKB: Favourite airline? Malaysian Airlines?
Nicol: Yes, I used to travel a lot with them. They used to sponsor me. Right now, they have a lot of changes going on. But the Sports Council of Malaysia still sponsors me, so I fly MAS a lot, yes.
OKB: You went to Convent Green Lane, I understand. How many languages do you speak? How’s your Dutch.
Nicol: Just English. Hokkien, I understand from my mother. It sounds funny when I speak it. Tamil is not spoken at home, except by my grandfather.
I do want to know many more languages. I will just have to sit down someday and get down to it.
OKB: What is your training routine like?
Nicol: About 3 to 4 hours a day. Six days a week. On Thursdays, we sleep in and rest, and train only in the afternoon. Sunday is the day off. That’s when I do nothing, just laze around.
OKB: How has the state and the nation been treating you?
Nicol: Quite unreal. Getting so much back from Malaysians and Penangites, who have been so appreciative, is quite overwhelming. Squash players from other countries who come to Malaysia are very surprised by the reception.
OKB: What message do you have for young people? For young Malaysians, or young Penangites.
Nicol: My dream was to be world champion someday. That has come true, I am living my dream. So, have a dream. Find what you love doing and stick to it, that’s my advice.
OKB: How do you think your reign will end? Will you retire at the top, or will you fight your way till the end?
Nicol: I think I will want to keep on top of my game. I want to keep going as long as my body will last. I love the sport, and I will stay as long as possible.
OKB: That’s not good news for your opponents.
Nicol: It’s about looking after your body, looking after every aspect. Those are your tools to keep you going.
After that, there is a lot one can do. Maybe have an academy, or a design company someday, who knows.
OKB: Your father and I were discussing the possibility of Penang launching a regular tournament of world standard for women’s squash in the near future. Would you be supportive of that?
Nicol: Yes, of course. The thing is that the sponsorship has to be of a certain level for players like me to be able to participate as part of our ranking process. So once you have sponsors that are generous enough, we can have such a regular tournament in Penang. With the new portable glass courts, you can move the venue around, especially for the finals.
Well, the international squash players love coming to Penang. Given the right occasion, they will definitely come.
[This interview with Nicol Ann David, took place at noon on 13th December 2009, at the Penang International Squash Centre, Bukit Dumbar].