Friday, 13 September 2013

9 World Titles, and Now Comes the Evolution

(September 13, 2013

Tonight, Nicol David, current world #1, and the only woman to have won the senior world squash championship an amazing seven times, played her national teammate, world #6 Low Wee Wern in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Malaysian Squash Open. 

Now that fact that Nicol won is not surprising, even given that Wee Wern has dramatically improved her game over the past year and a half. No, what was surprising was that Nicol has started to evolve her game, at this relatively late stage of her career. Late being relative, tonight she was looking fitter, than she's been over the past couple of years, and certainly fitter than her young opponent, whose legs couldn't keep up in the end.

Miss David won two world titles as a junior, and has since won 7 world titles, and one would think that whatever got her this far should be just fine. And why not, most folks will say, stay with a winning strategy. The problem is, even though Nicol won her seventh senior world title at the end of last year, she's been struggling against two players in particular for the past year and a half. And both of those opponents play an aggressive attacking game.

Most observers, and coaches could be forgiven for thinking that Nicol just needed to sharpen her game a bit, make a few minor adjustments maybe, and hang tough. The problem is, Miss David's game has always been founded on the idea of 'hanging tough'. Nicol has, from her earliest years, been a tireless, defensive running type player, all the way through at least probably the first 8 of her overall 9 world titles. Last year she showed at times an attacking mentality, but it appeared to be more of an experiment than anything else.

This past spring Nicol suffered a loss to Laura Massaro in the final of the British Open. And that was one of three losses to Laura in their four most recent matches on the world tour. What was obvious tonight is that Nicol and her coach, Liz Irving, haven't been just revamping, tweaking, or refurbishing her game. They've retooled it. Her game has evolved.

Obviously Nicol or maybe Liz, or together, someone came to the realization that in order to beat them, you're going to have to join them. So what was on view tonight

Nicol's footwork has become much more aggressive and attacking, in particular the first step. She is now looking for the volley first, every time. Whereas in the past, she only went for the volley when she saw it coming. Now, she's positioning herself to take advantage of volley or intercept opportunities even before they become evident.

Second, Miss David has 'lowered' her long game, while keeping the length essentially the same. Meaning that her drives from mid-court and the backcourt are being hit on flatter trajectory, basically all her drives are now hitting the front wall more often than not, below the service line. At the same time she's still maintaining the length of her drives. This is significantly increasing the pressure on her opponents.

Third, Nicol has added the attacking boast to her repertoire of shots. Tonight it looked like she hit more attacking boasts in the first game of her match, than she's averaged in a whole tournament.  So now, her opponent will not only have to deal with a flatter drive from Nicol's racket, she has to cope with Nicol's being drastically more positive, and frequent in her attacking the ball on the volley, and then add on top of it all, attacking boasts. 

Nicol David has shown tonight that she has made a leap of light years, in evolving her game. And while this new strategy of constant pressure and attack will take more time to sharpen to its finest, there is no doubt that Nicol's opponents are going to struggle, because she's raised her game, and her legendary fitness is still as good as ever, if not better.

The semifinals are tomorrow, and then the finals on Sunday. Let's look for two things: 1. Does Nicol keep with her new evolved game, and 2. How does it stack up against her recent nemesis. One of them will be waiting for her on Sunday.

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