I wrote a couple of blog posts a while back on Nicol David and I thought it was time for a new one. She's such an icon in squash that she deserves much more than 1 post! David just lost in the semis of the Hong Kong Open, but won a number of tight matches prior to this. She's such a feisty competitor and always comes prepared to leave it all on the court. I felt she was a bit lucky to come out on top against Joelle King and also went 5 in her 1st round match against Tesni Evans. The previous year of Davids career reminds me a bit of Roger Federer now in tennis. Federer still gets consistently close, but hasn't won a big event in quite some time. Is David facing similar fate? Can she get back her world #1 or is she just hanging on as high as she can for as long as she can? Has everyone else caught up or has she fallen back to the pack? Should she change her game? What can she learn from the other top ladies on tour? How has she tweaked her style and has it helped? These are some of the questions I thought would make for an interesting post so let's get to it.
A lot has been made of Nicol David holding her racquet higher up on the grip. I heard one of the commentators at the HK Open mention that Jahangir Khan suggested this and apparently he to do this himself. Back when Khan was dominating the squash tour the racquets weighed twice as much as they do now so I don't see the relevance or similarities. Moving your grip up makes the racquet a bit lighter, allows you to be closer to your shot with a smaller swing so you should be a little more exact. While moving your grip down to the bottom of the handle gives you more leverage for power and a greater reach allowing you to get a few more balls back in play and stay a tad more central through each shot.
I assume these change were made because she feels like she has better control and touch. I watched most of her matches from this event and I don't see any obvious change in her short game. I see some good drops, but also a lot that sit up for her opponent. I feel like the style of play most of the women she struggles with are very attacking and hard hitters so I would think the extra reach would suit her well. I've played around with the height of my grip over the years and when I did hold it higher I would still be able to lower it when I felt some pressure developing in a point. Now I just hold the racquet at the bottom because I'm not very tall and I need that extra reach. I really feel like I have to run that much further from the T when I choke up on my grip so personally I don't like it. So I don't see this change helping David, unless she believes it does. Yes, the placebo effect. Wether it helps or hinders her game is irrelevant, it's how she believes it impacts her that matters. If she feels her short game is better like this it probably will be because she believes it is and confidence is a must for this area of the game. Do you think her short game was more accurate in this event? I'm sure she has a nice cushy contract with Prince, but do you think she would benefit from experimenting with some other models or even other companies if she wants to make her racquet a tad lighter Or do you think it's more about lowering her target and looking for winners as opposed to working shots?
What else could Nicol David do to try and get back her world #1 ranking? Should she play with more power and more attacking like some of the other top ladies? That's not really her game and her opponents do that better so I don't think she can completely change her style of play and do it better than people that have practiced this style their entire careers. I felt like the way Annie Au played at this event against Nour El Sherbini could teach David a thing or two. Au is very petite, but plays tactically sound squash and uses her strengths and knows how to avoid her weaknesses. She has a tremendous forehand counter drop and volley drop and relies on her accuracy to win. She lifts the ball consistently, but can also hit with a lot of pace when there's an opening. I really think continuing to polish David's volley drop and counter drop would help her immensely. I feel Au's short game was much stronger. It doesn't mean David needs to use her short game more it just has to be more accurate when she does. Currently I feel like she isn't as ruthless or fearless when she attacks short and with the lowered tin this is an area she could still improve. She doesn't use much deception compared to the Egyptian women so if you're easy to read and you're not overpowering you better be pin point accurate.
One thing that was very evident in her loss to Nour Gohar was how defensive she was playing from the back of the court. Rightly so she didn't want to get into a slugfest with Gohar. It was quite obvious how high and deep she was aiming for her length as she was intentionally overhitting all of her drives, while Gohar was letting it rip on most shots and applying pressure consistently. Maybe David felt like she needed to lift the ball and hit it that deep to give her time to get up on the T or perhaps she was trying to slowly wear Gohar down by letting the Egyptian punch herself out. I felt like later in the match there were signs of Gohar's pace slowing slightly, but I still believe the best defence is a good offence. This doesn't mean I think David should begin hitting everything harder, but simply focusing more on the depth of her drives so Gohar doesn't have so much time to set up and transfer her weight into the ball and hit it 1,000 miles per hour. from the back corners; as soon as this begins to happen you are always going to be reacting and on your heels. There were so few dying drives from David and her drops were still generally a bit too passive and sat up so I thought tactically it wasn't a good matchup for her.
Really when it comes down to it it's tough to change your game more than minor bits when you are in the later stages of your career. If there's any chance of David getting her #1 ranking back I feel she's going to have to really focus on being a bit more proactive and attacking. How much she can change is unclear, but I wouldn't make any drastic changes just subtle refinements. I think there are so many hard hitting and strong attacking players it's tough to win by lifting the ball consistently. I can see on 1 hand that David would be difficult for the other women to beat because she is very consistent with what she does and doesn't make many unforced errors, but I also get the feeling her opponents also feel quite comfortable in the rallies as they are able to dictate a large portion of the points.
Nicold David has definitely brought a large group of players up to her level and now some appear to be just slightly ahead of her. She has won the Hong Kong Open 10 times straight until this one so it's not fair to say her play has declined much or at all, but she isn't winning 90% of her events anymore so it's only normal to ask some questions and analyze why.
I love watching the clash of style when she plays an attacking player. She is in excellent condition and stays very focused, but will that be enough to win more titles? In the next couple of years she will start to slow down and her game will have to evolve if she is going to continue to stay near the top of the game. Does this mean she will play at an even slower pace, become more proficient at attacking or maybe more sneaky and wise? Time will tell. I'll always cheer for her as she's done so much for our sport and to improve the standard of the women's game, I just hope we get to see her win a few more big titles and have an opportunity to get the world #1 spot back! Jonathon Power did this at the end of his career, so it can happen in the later stages of your career. She definitely still has a shot at every event she enters, it's just the increased depth means it's only getting tougher. Good luck Nicol!
By the way I'm taking Amanda Sobhy in 5 and Ramy Ashour in 4 tonight! Don't forget to check out my new squash merch store at SeriousSquashShop.com