Painful defeat for Malaysia’s sporting icon
By ALAN THATCHER and ALEX WAN
Nicol David’s defeat to Nour El Sherbini may have been the most significant result in the whole of the Naza Women’s World Championship. The 32-year-old Malaysian sat at the court-side in tears after losing to one of the outstanding young players at the forefront of Egypt’s almost total domination of the sport.
After winning eight world titles and spending 109 months at number one in the world rankings, this phenomenal athlete looked a sad and lonely figure as she hid her face in a towel as the tears began to flow.
Her ranking has slipped to five in the world and she is no longer the invincible force in women’s squash.
Her last world title success was a scrambled affair against Raneem El Welily when she survived several match balls and staged a miraculous recovery. No miracles were on offer this week at the Bukit Jalil squash centre where the main court is named in her honour and where many of the walls are covered with photographs of her international successes.
Losing in front of her own home crowd is always a painful feeling, as we witnessed two years ago in Penang, where massive audiences had flocked to see their local darling and national icon in action.
Coming to terms with defeats must be a massive psychological blow for such a successful athlete, especially in a nation where the media has placed her under huge pressure. Perhaps now they are beginning to realise that their national treasure does not have a divine right to win every match and that perhaps her opponents finally deserve some credit.
The National Squash Centre was filled up to a 500-odd capacity as fans flocked to catch their hero in action in the quarter-finals.
But it turned out to be a dampener for the home crowd as Nicol was unable to lift her game as Sherbini proved too strong, winning 14-12, 4-11, 11-3, 11-7.
The Egyptian was right on target as she saved three game balls in the first set to take it 14-12.
Nicol, however, stormed back to take the second 11-4 as Sherbini committed a string of unforced errors.
But instead of building up the momentum, it was Sherbini was came out firing in the third, sending Nicol all over the court to win 11-3.
The Penangite mounted a late comeback in the fourth but Sherbini was just too good in the end.
“I may be ranked second in the world but beating Nicol in Malaysia definitely feels like an upset. The first time I beat her, it was in Penang two years ago as well,” said Sherbini.
“I’m happy to be through to the semi-finals for sure but I feel sorry for the crowd here too. I know a lot of them came to support Nicol today and it’s always special when she plays in Malaysia.”
Before the tournament, Nicol told the Star’s Kng Zheng Guan: “I’ve had my struggles over the past two years trying to adjust my playing style … and it is reflected in my performances and ranking.
“These experiences have helped me grow and take me to my next level of squash.
“Winning in Hong Kong last year was such an achievement for me because I could bring all these elements together throughout the tournament.”
Guan noted that, despite winning an incredible 80 titles worldwide, David fell short on the three previous occasions the world meet had been held in Malaysia, in 1996, 2004 and 2014. She lost in the qualifying round 1996 and in the semi-finals in 2004 and 2014.
Here she bowed out in the last eight, which suggests some kind of pattern.
It is not a downward spiral in form, more a case that the chasing pack have finally caught up, and a handful of them have overtaken her.
Laura Massaro is now the only non-Egyptian left in the tournament. She triumphed in Penang two years ago when El Sherbini beat David in the semi-finals.
While Malaysians wait to see how Nicol David will react to this latest setback, English supporters will be hoping that history can repeat itself.
However, three Egyptians are also harbouring hopes of a first world title.
Pictures by Vincent Thian/Decisive Moment Images