When Nicol David copied her two elder sisters, Lianne and Cheryl, and picked up a squash racquet back home in Penang when she was five years old, she had no idea she would one day become the most successful female player in the sport’s history and the biggest sporting icon Malaysia has ever produced.
David started her prodigious path at such a young age, that by the time she hit nine years old she was already a Junior Penang State Under-14 champion and a National Junior Interstate Under-16 champion.
At 14, she won the Asian Championships – at the senior level, not junior – and at 15, David took gold at the Asian Games before becoming the youngest-ever female world junior champion in Antwerp in 1999, which catapulted her to national hero status before she even turned 16.
In 2005, David became the first Malaysian and first Asian woman to win the prestigious British Open title and a few months later, she captured her first of EIGHT World Championship trophies. The then-22-year-old was showcasing such dominance that she only lost two matches all year.
In January 2006, she rose to No1 in the world – also a first by a Malaysian player and Asian female.
After briefly losing the top spot in the rankings from April to July that year, David returned to No1 and would not vacate that position for an astonishing 108 consecutive months – that is nine uninterrupted years as the best women’s squash player on the planet.
So when people compare Nicol David to Roger Federer, it really is no exaggeration. In fact, her record reign at the summit of the sport was much longer than the Swiss’ in tennis.
“When people say that, sometimes it’s overwhelming… I still can’t believe what I’ve done but then I have to start understanding what it is and just move forward,” David says with a shy smile on her face when she is asked about being placed in the same league as Federer.
At her peak, she would go for months and months undefeated, like the 56-match winning streak she sustained from October 2007 until March 2009 that eclipsed her previous record run of 51 consecutive victories from March 2006 until April 2007.
But like every legend in sport, David – now 32 years old – has had to deal with the inevitable reality that one day, someone younger and stronger would catch up with her and last August, the Malaysian superstar’s nine-year monopoly of the No1 ranking came to an end at the hands of Egypt’s Raneem El Welily.
“For me, as I was growing up, Nicol had always been world No1, she’s been this perfect picture of an athlete, very disciplined, very decent, very humble, mentally she’s very strong, physically she’s even stronger. She’s unbelievable,” is how El Welily describes the woman she dethroned.
Since she lost the top spot, David has won just one title, in Hong Kong last December, and is trophy-less in 2016, her ranking dropping to its current No5.
She recently lost in the semi-finals of the World Championships at home in Kuala Lumpur to 20-year-old new world No1 Nour El Sherbini, who also reserves endless respect for the Penangite: “Nicol’s one of the best players ever, she is a legend and there will never be someone like her again.”
With 80 titles from 100 finals throughout her 16-year career, David is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.
But is it now really the beginning of the end for her? She certainly doesn’t think so.
“When you take a step back and you go down to another ranking it really gives you a different perspective on what I’ve achieved. I think last year gave me a chance to really absorb what has happened and now I’m finding my groove back,” she says.
“It is a bit of a struggle because you’re finding your ground again. We all have our struggles and it comes in moments and now I’m finally feeling that the fire is there.
“It’s difficult but I’m now really excited for the opportunity to have that challenge to push myself further.
“I’m not putting too much expectations on myself because it’s not on me now, it’s on someone else. I am the underdog now.”
Her slip in the rankings has not necessarily been due to a dip in form but perhaps has more to do with the change in the landscape of competition she is currently facing. The past few years in squash have seen the influx of a generation of Egyptian players who brought a more attacking style to the game.
“Players are changing from when I started to what it is right now, because it’s different styles. A lot are coming from Egypt, so you don’t get the traditional squash players’ styles coming in, you just have to go like ‘I have to get so many other weapons to be ready for the attacks and then attack back’. So this is the next step,” she adds.
David is all about pushing boundaries. Growing up the youngest of three sisters, she was competitive in everything she did and having older siblings play the sport gave her an extra drive to try and beat them. They were the only three girls playing squash in Penang but that never fazed her.
“Even in kindergarten, having an obstacle course with the boys, I still came out winning because I wanted to beat everybody. It’s just in my nature and if I put my mind to anything, I just go for it. That’s always been in me and that has helped me until now, that fighting spirit and that knowledge that I know I have something in me that can pull me through in anything,” she says calmly.
David was good at math and in another life would have probably been an architect had it not been for the support of her parents, Desmond and Ann Marie, who had enough faith in her to allow her to forgo the typical route in Malaysia of pursuing a university degree and let her turn pro as a 16-year-old instead.
“Maybe my life was a bit different because you don’t meet your school mates as much but you’re experiencing life on a whole different level with travel, meeting new people, making new friends and experiencing different cultures, so I think it was definitely a great way to make me grow up at a young age,” she reflects on her childhood.
After joining the professional women’s tour, David struggled to post the same kind of results she had shown as a junior and she knew she needed to take some drastic measures to reach her goals. She moved to Amsterdam in her late teens to join the academy of Australian former pro Liz Irving and it is there where she hit her stride.
Having broken through at such a young age, David is a natural when it comes to being in the spotlight and her humility and effervescence shine through in conversation.
The first thought that came to mind when I spoke with her is that she must be the most unassuming living sports legend I’ve ever met.
She is a megastar at home in Malaysia, where she became a household name when she was as young as 12 years old and the media frenzy around her just mushroomed from year to year.
“It was quite weird at the time because all I was doing was being a kid playing and doing well and I achieved more than I ever could imagine,” she says.
In 2008, David was honoured with the Order of Merit – Darjah Bakti – and one sportswriter, Keeshaanan Sundaresan, addressed her in an open letter after she lost the No1 spot last year, saying that her achievements “had trickle-down effects on every Malaysian out there. In a country where differences, are more often than not dogmatized, your story and your internationally acclaimed success, are one of the few things that binds us together.”
David openly talks about her current struggles but is adamant she is nowhere near the stage of retirement.
“I would love to keep playing at the highest competitive level that I can get and hopefully to sustain that for the next, who knows, five years if my body is still in good shape and my mind is willing and my heart is still eager to take on the challenge,” she says.
It is remarkable how she has kept up her motivation so far, having achieved everything there is to achieve in the sport.
“The feeling of competing, nothing can replace it,” she insists. “So all the sacrifices that you make with the traveling and moving around, it all pays off when you go on the glass court and you play your best squash and you feel that nothing else can faze you. That’s what the motivation to do all this – the traveling and training – is all about.”
It is indeed a tough life, being on the road all the time and after so many years on tour, it’s only natural for her to think about when would be a good time to settle down and perhaps get in a committed relationship or start a family.
“As a female athlete, it is very difficult to maintain a relationship with anyone and I think if there is a chance, it’s always difficult while you’re competing to put focus into competing,” says David.
“So it’s just a matter of prioritising what you want first and for me squash and my life in squash comes first and I think everything else becomes second, for a while, and all that will come when I’m ready and settled. But for the moment I’m just enjoying my time with everything that squash has to offer and that’s how I look at things in that sense.
“It is tough but it’s what you’re committed to. You can’t be committed to two things, that’s how I feel, you have to choose one and give it your all. That’s my take as a sportsperson. I think in other careers, maybe there is a way to manage it but with sport, it’s so heavy physically and rest is so important, mentally you have to be just free and clear in your mind and then be fully focused on what I have to do for my squash.”
You get the sense that there is no excessive extravagance in David’s life. She recalls the first big paycheck she received from squash was when she was a teenager after winning gold for Malaysia at a multisport Games.
“I got a good incentive from the government and I was just so happy with it but the first thing that came to my mind was that I didn’t want to buy something big, I just wanted to enjoy it with my friends and go out for as many dinners as I can with them, treat my family and my friends who have been there with me throughout,” she says.
While the sport has given her so much, she has also tirelessly given back. She was the face of several campaigns associated with bids to include squash at the Olympics and has worked hard with officials in the sport to take it to a new level.
While all those bids failed and squash continues to be snubbed by the quadrennial Games, David sees positives in the general progress the sport has made, particularly when it comes to equality between men and women.
The men’s and women’s tours merged at the end of 2014 and for the first time next year, the World Championships will offer equal pay to both genders.
The upcoming PSA World Tour Series Finals that will be played on a glass court at the foot of Burj Khalifa in Dubai from May 24-28 is another chance for squash to make a splash and grab the attention of a wider audience.
“We definitely raised the bar, the broadcasting, spectator viewership, everything has come in really well,” says David.
“I’m so proud of what it is today but I know we still need to compete with all the other sports that are out there to gain that media attention that we deserve and we’ll continue to work harder to develop the sport.
“I think as we move forward with equality, merging both tours was the next thing to do to show unity within the sport and how both the men and women are united as one to support each other and gain equality in the workplace and overall.