PSA Road to Dubai: Nicol David’s journey to squash stardom

In the second part of her wide-ranging interview with Gruffudd Owen, Malaysian squash maestro Nicol David discusses the secrets of her success, the frustration of missing out on the Olympic Games and her sport’s progress in promoting gender parity 

It may not enjoy the same level of attention or global appeal as the darling of the racquet sport family, but squash can certainly match tennis when it comes to the near-superhuman feats of its most revered and storied stars.

On the one hand we have Roger Federer: 18-time Grand Slam tennis champion and one of the finest and most elegant sportspeople of all time.

On the other is Jahangir Khan, the king of squash whose legendary 555-match winning streak is as perfect an example of sporting omnipotence as you will find.

In women’s tennis there is Serena Williams, an athlete of such astonishing talent that she stormed to her seventh Australian Open title earlier this year at the grand old age of 35 – while in the early stages of pregnancy.

And for an equivalent sporting great in the world of women’s squash, look no further than Nicol David.

Having won virtually every honour in the game several times over and spending an unprecedented 108 consecutive months as women’s world no. 1, David has earned her standing as one of the greatest-ever squash players, a journey that started in her native Malaysia more than 20 years ago.

“When I was 11 years old, I was given the chance to use the amazing facilities offered by the national sports council and the Institute of Sports in Malaysia,” she reveals.

“I’ve had access to nutritionists, sports psychologists and sports scientists throughout my career, who have taught me how to look after myself both physically and mentally.”

While this early support has certainly aided David’s rise to the top of her profession, she regards her decision to team up with Australian squash coach and former player Liz Irving as the definitive turning point in her career. David’s entourage – led by Amsterdam-based Irving – has played a crucial role in the Malaysian’s success over the years.

“I’ve worked with Liz for 14 years now,” David explains.

“She’s usually with me at every tournament, at least at the five majors. I also have a sports psychologist in Amsterdam, a Malaysian sports psychologist and a sports therapist. Those four are the main ones.

“Then there’s my sports science team based in Malaysia: they come from Australia, England and around the world.”

Squash has been given such a great opportunity and a visible platform to grow from thanks to Dubai

For all of David’s accolades – and a quick look online will tell you that particular list is preposterously long – squash’s continued absence from the Olympic Games has denied her the opportunity to showcase the attraction of squash to the wider sporting world.

At 33 years of age, any faint hopes of competing at a future Games have long since passed – a source of frustration for David, especially as she is convinced that the sport is perfectly suited for one of the biggest sporting spectacles on the planet.

“It’s disappointing when you know for a fact that our sport deserves to be there,” she says.

“We are just as dedicated as any other Olympic athlete. We work just as hard, our sport is brutal, and we tick all the boxes to be an Olympic sport. It’s unfortunate that we don’t get a chance to play there.

“We just have to keep doing what we’re doing, develop our game as much as possible, get the recognition it deserves and continue to market it the way it should be marketed.

“The Olympics will come: we just have to change our direction a little bit.”

Nevertheless, a genuine cause for celebration is the increasing gender parity in professional squash. Following the momentous decision made at the 2013 Delaware Investments US Open to reward both male and female players with equal prize money – a world first for the sport – the Allam British Open followed suit this year. Next month’s PSA World Series Finals at the Dubai Opera will also split the purse equally.

For David, it is a belated appreciation of the vital role women play not just in squash, but in sport as a whole.

“I think it’s fantastic. It’s such a huge boost for women’s squash,” she says.

“You can count the number of sports that offer equal prize money on the palm of your hand, so we’re very fortunate that we’ve come this far.

“We now have six major events throughout the year that offer equal prize money. That’s a testament to how far we’ve come.”

David’s immediate focus is on the PSA World Series Finals. Despite winning the first two editions of the season-ending event in 2012 and 2013, she fell at the semi-final stage during last year’s competition, which was held in front of the iconic Burj Khalifa.

Regardless of how she performs this time round – and with only the top eight players on the PSA World Tour eligible to compete, reclaiming her crown will be a formidable challenge – David will take time out to explore a city she could not help but be impressed by during her time in the emirate last year.

“I loved trying out different restaurants and cuisines because the city is so well-known for them. Hopefully I can do a bit more this time round,” she says.

“It has so much to offer – the city is so globally recognisable as a centre of sporting excellence. Squash has been given such a great opportunity and a visible platform to grow from thanks to Dubai.

“Since last year, it has really paved the way for the growth of sport in the Middle East and America. They see how it’s showcased so well.”

Although David is approaching the end of her career, she has no intention of quitting the sport once her playing days are over. In addition to opening her own academy in Malaysia, she is also planning on establishing a foundation to encourage more girls to play sport, particularly in the poorer areas of her home country.

Ultimately, it is a measure of David’s qualities as a human being as much as an exceptional squash player that for her, what matters most is what she put into squash, rather than what she got out of the sport.

“I want to be remembered as someone who contributed to the sport and who inspired people to play, or even just to be a better person,” she says.

“I just hope that I can encourage more people to do that in their own lives.”