Malaysia’s Duracell Bunny keeps on running to claim another world title as Raneem El Welily goes so close to raising the roof in Cairo
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
Even at four match balls down, if you can still run and hit a ball, you still have a chance. That is what Nicol Ann David taught the world yesterday.
She was definitely not playing her best squash, her opponent was blazing on court with a ferocious home ground advantage, the temperature was low, the ball was pretty dead. And then, there were four match balls in hand. If there was a squash calculator, this would be a pretty easy one.
So that’s what Nicol Ann David is. She defies the odds. She is simply extraordinary. She will find her way back by digging into her reserves that even her coach of 12 years, Liz Irving, did not know existed. Why dare I make this statement? Well, Liz did say “I can’t believe it” after Nicol had buried her crosscourt forehand into the back at match point.
The build-up to this final was next to perfection. Nicol and Raneem had just played each other in the semi-finals of the Women’s World Team Championships in Canada. While Nicol won it 3-1 then, the quality of that match was simply exemplary. The quality of squash from both players was a sight to behold.
Then, in Wadi Degla, they took it to a whole new level. In the earlier rounds, Raneem was tested more than Nicol. Right from the start she had to play an extra game more, beating Habiba Mohamed, Dipika Pallikal, Nour El Tayeb and Alison Waters along the way, all in in four games.
Nicol, on the other hand, won all her matches with 3-0 margins before the semi-final, though they were by no means easy matches, as the scores would suggest. Omneya Abdel Kawy, one of her rivals from junior years, stretched her to five games in the semi-finals, but her resilience and determination carried her through.
A fellow journalist asked me if Nicol could win it just before the match. So I said, “I believe so, she’s all fired up.”
The first game was just Raneem, who broke away from 2-2 to go 7-2 up. Her years of experience playing Nicol coupled by some very careful (and not so lethal) shots from the Malaysian paved the way for an Egyptian lead.
In the second, Raneem continued on from where she had left off. One must only see the topspin forehand drop at 2-2 in this game to actually realise how the game has been redefined by the Egyptians. The next rally that followed, too, where Raneem showed how effective wristwork is in quite a few times in a single rally.
But the Duracell Bunny came hopping back from 2-5 down to 9-7. Raneem managed another point and a stroke gave Nicol the game to draw level.
The third saw Nicol coming back where she left off, firing herself to a 3-0 lead before a topspin forehand drop shot came to Raneem’s rescue. This eventually helped her to a 4-3 lead and later 7-4. Raneem eventually gets to game ball at 10-7 thanks to an uncharacteristic error from Nicol off the serve, which she closes out with a perfect serve.
By now, the crowd was going mental already and who can blame them. Chants of Raneem are heard all over the Wadi Degla squash club. There was even confusion from the floor staff as they brought in tables for the trophies after the third game.
Now this is where all the magic happened, in the fourth game. Raneem couldn’t have asked for a better start as her opponent snapped her strings in the very first rally. Things got even worse for Nicol as Raneem raced to a 6-2 lead. But then Nicol got into a momentum shift and drew level at 6-6.
Raneem then produces some magic from her hand to take a 10-6 match-ball lead. All she needed was just one winning rally. To many, Nicol was done and dusted already. But she came back so strongly, collecting five points in a row to get to game point herself, which Raneem saved and a loud shout came out of her.
I’ve never seen both these girls so emotional before. The amount of fist pumps and shouts of “Come On” clearly showed how much they both wanted to win this one. A few exchanges later, Nicol would walk out the winner of the game, drawing level at two games each.
The opening rally of the fifth couldn’t have been better. Both players traded lengths and shots that eventually went Raneem’s way. However, after that, everything just went Nicol’s way. The Malaysian was simply bouncing around on court and her opponent’s strings snapping at 8-5 up sure did help.
A stroke got the Malaysian to match ball. The next rally was not long, which Nicol finished off with a crosscourt forehand from the front which was out of reach for Raneem. That brought Nicol to her knees and tears of joy just flowed. It was definitely more emotional than her first world title in Hong Kong.
Even during her winner’s speech, Nicol was struggling to finish off her sentences. The usually composed Nicol David was overwhelmed by the occasion this time around.
For Raneem, this may be a very bitter pill to swallow. But she can take the loss with her head held up high. If it makes things easier, Nicol twice failed to win it on home soil, in 2004 and March this year, but she won the next editions in 2005 in Hong Kong and now in Cairo.
So, who knows, perhaps 2015 may be Raneem’s year to get her name on the coveted trophy.
For Nicol, it will be yet another title in the bag. Another record matched. Come January, she will break another record. But still, the Olympic dream may elude her.
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