Thursday, 18 April 2013

Laura Massaro won it, Nicol David didn't lose it!

I was there, back row watching all four semifinals and then the finals. And one can be assured Nicol David was playing well, and she was fit. If Nicol had not been playing well, then the rallies would not have been as long as they were. Nicol throughout her career has been primarily a defensive player, and if rallies are short, that would indicated that Nicol's game is off.  If Nicol had not been physically fit, it would have shown, it would have become obvious that she was slowing down, with signs of tiredness starting to show, in between points body language would have indicated a diminished level of energy. None of this was evident, even to the last point.

No, Nicol was beaten by the better player, on that day, and she's been beaten by the same player several times in recent memory. To add, Nicol's been beaten by another player, from Egypt, several times too. So one can not say that this is not totally unexpected. There are now two women on the women's world tour who have solid victories over Nicol, and this includes Laura Massaro who has taken the 2013 KL Squash Open trophy back home to England. Considering Nicol's style of play, and that her two main adversaries are more focused on an attacking game (albeit in two distinct different ways), it is reasonable to predict that Nicol's dominance, while not over, will suffer at the hands of those who are very good at playing an attacking style of squash.

Some may recall that Peter Nicol was probably the most successful defensive minded player among men's ranks for a decade, starting in the late 90's. And yet, we also must make note that Peter's head to head record with the Canadian Wizard, Jonathon Power, was virtually 50/50. The two of them met in something like 49 tournament finals, with the scoreline being 25 wins for Peter, and 24 to Jonathon. When you count back to their total career head to head record the split is still quite close to 50/50.

So here we have an example of probably the most accomplished defensive player in the men's squash game, and yet against someone who had a consummate attacking game, the resulting finals were evenly split.

In the recent KL Open semifinal, Nicol ran up against an English woman who has developed her whole game around the backhand wall. Laura Massaro is attacking, constantly looking to pressure her opponents along that backhand wall. Most coaches and players look at the back wall as defensive area of the court. Maintain length, keep it straight, look for the loose ball that can be taken crosscourt, then start pressuring the opponent.

This is not Laura Massaro. Laura WANTS the ball on the backhand side, in fact she loves the backhand side so much, that she probably loathes the forehand side of the court. As a coach, watching Massaro dominate her matches from the backhand side, I'd venture that her court training is probably somewhere between 65-75% focused on the backhand side. 

In the semifinal against Nicol David, the final against Alison Waters, and in several other matches I've observed on video, it's obvious that Laura will generally take anything her opponent gives her on the forehand side, and immediately she returns it to the backhand side. This is so different from most players, who reasonably prefer to get the ball to the forehand side of the court where they feel that they have opportunities to attack.

Nope, Laura is not only excellent defensively on the backhand wing, she's also extremely proficient, even deadly, in attacking her opponents on that side. Her combination of crisp drops, drives and lobs have been honed to such a degree that once her opponent comes up just a little short of the back corner, Laura is cranking up the pressure with tight shots both short and mid court along the wall. Anytime Laura's opponents hit to the forehand side, she most often returned the ball to the backhand side within the next two shots. 

No, Nicol David didn't lose the match, she was beaten. Beaten down the backhand side of the court. Does this mean that David's reign at the top is over? Unlikely, however, unless she's going to make significant changes to her approach and style, then losses, to attacking players who are fit, and sharp on the day, will continue to add up. 

Nicol at times has shown the capacity to attack, and she's run past her opponents like a high speed train going by a lorry. The problem is that throughout Nicol's career from junior years until recently, her running game, defensive minded, based on error free play and fitness, have been enough to cause opponents one and all to simply wilt before the aerobic fortress that is Nicol's game. 

Now, Ms. David has a couple of opponents who bring with them the style, skills and mentality to attack, to apply pressure on her, before her aerobic endurance becomes a factor. So the losses are counting up. 

Does this mean that Nicol's run of world championships is under threat? Actually, probably not. The world championships are large enough, with virtually all of the top players participating. This means that every match is tougher compared to most matches played at regular tour events. Basically, everyone is working harder, physically, from the first round through to the later rounds. So looking at the world championships, because the level of competition is higher from the first round, and there are more rounds, players will find their underlying endurance taxed more than any other event in the year. This plays out in Nicol's favor. Any opponent who reaches the final of the world championship will have to work far more, expending more energy reserves than at most events, thus any opponent in the final would very likely be facing Nicol at a physical disadvantage before the first serve is even hit. 

And for the other events, what can Nicol do to get back on top? She has the speed, she has the fitness, she has the defense. Ms. David needs to start attacking. She needs to develop her awareness of opportunities to apply pressure, and when those situations occur, she must go for it. And she needs to do it from round one, grooving her pressure shots, and sharpening her awareness, so that with each succeeding round she is getting better and better.

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