PETER NICOL, who totalled five years as World No. 1, talks to SportAsia about Nicol David’s inspiring reign, squash missing out on the 2020 Olympics, succeeding Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan as the game’s best player and spearheading SquashSkills.com.
October 21, 2013: Peter Nicol is a man of many talents, although he’ll always be best known for his achievements as one of squash’s greatest players.
In February 1998, the-then 24-year-old Scot became the first player from the UK to become World No. 1 and would go on to hold the position for a total of 60 months, including a continuous 24-month stint through 2002 and 2003.
In 1998, the left-hander won the first of two British Open titles by ending the six-year run of the legendary Jansher Khan, who had also won eight World Opens. After finishing runner-up at the World Open in 1997 and 1998, Nicol won the title in 1999 by beating Egyptian superstar Ahmed Barada 3-0 in the final.
Nicol had won the Commonwealth Games for the first time in Kuala Lumpur in 1998. Having started to represent England in 2001, he took silver in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and clinched another gold in Melbourne in 2006, which marked his swansong as he retired from the game.
Other career highlights included winning three consecutive Super Series Finals title (1999, 2000, 2001), two PSA Masters title (2000, 2004), three Tournament of Champions titles (2001, 2003, 2004) and two British National Championship titles (1996, 2003).
However, the multi-talented Nicol is a man of many skills. Since retiring as a player, he has worked in sports marketing for Eventis, managed a squash and fitness club in Scotland, developed SquashSkills.com and run training programmes in the USA, recently moving to New York to live.
Now 40, he’s also President of the England Squash and Racquetball Association, so has a unique perspective on the game’s developments around the globe.
Interview with PETER NICOL
The squash family was obviously disappointed to miss out on becoming an Olympic sport, but what were some of the positives to have come out of the bid?
It was by far the best bid we’ve ever put together. We were close to getting in eight years ago, but four years ago we were nowhere near. Since then we realised we had to work together as a sport, so the WSF (World Squash Federation), PSA (Professional Squash Association), WSA (Women’s Squash Association), and all the federations – Asian, Europe, North America and so on – all started working much closer. That’s still a positive thing that has been really good for the sport. We’ve become much more professional, which has filtered down to junior events and all the way up to the World Opens, both male and female. We’re all pushing in the right direction.
Nicol with Tim Garner in the Falklands as part of the 7 Continent Challenge in April, when they played seven matches in seven days on seven continents to raise awareness of squash’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.
The game has changed dramatically in that time. The media coverage has improved, including live streaming and improved television. The consistency of the game, the look and feel of the courts, have changed as well. It’s great what we can offer – the low cost, number of athletes, the sustainability, the lack of environmental impact on a host city, the amazing iconic venues you can have as a backdrop because you can put a glass court anywhere. There are a lot of positives that squash can bring.
What does squash need to do next to continue growing the game?
We need to help each individual association put more junior programmes together and share the knowledge, so that basically every single country knows there’s a national squash association and squash programmes. We need to get juniors involved, create a demand, build courts because of the demand, and just keep pushing the sport forward in that way.
You don’t have a sport unless there are people playing it and that stems from having great junior programmes. Every country in the world has done well at the high end, but we must also make sure there’s lots of amateur participation at the lower levels. We need to encourage people to play from four years old to 80 years old. I think more than anything we need to concentrate on that. Other things will shoot off from that.
I’m President of England Squash and participation is always the biggest challenge. The league programme will take care of itself as it has all the best coaches and so on. But we need to constantly get people involved in the sport, get them playing and excited about being squash players and then get people excited about being squash coaches. I think that’s where sports live and die, and in such a competitive market place, that needs to happen more and more now. When you get people on court, they love it. It’s a great sport.
In August, you travelled through Japan and Hong Kong with junior players from the USA. What was your role with them?
I’ve worked the last four or five summers at training camps in the US and have just moved to New York to live and do a year-round programme. We invited a few of the players previously involved in my camps to come across to international events in Asia.
We’d been to Italy and Germany before and this year we decided to come to Japan and Hong Kong, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also thought it would be good for them to see something so different to the US and Europe – the mentality, the culture and how everything is set up. They loved it and I enjoyed being back in Asia. I first arrived in Hong Kong in August 1993 as a qualifier, a no one, and I was treated with the utmost respect and hospitality, so I always enjoy going back.
Nicol David has become an icon for squash in Asia and across the world. What are your thoughts on her, now she has turned 30 and celebrating over seven years as a World No. 1?
For anyone to maintain that standard for that length of time is impressive, no matter what sport. She has done remarkably well. In a way, I’ve known her all the way through it because I worked with Prince and she has been sponsored by Prince. I had a working relationship with her because we were two Prince players, then I was a manager for Prince so I looked after her contracts, and now I’m an ambassador for Prince and she’s a player. I also just know her really well over the course of the past seven or eight years.
Nicol is a huge admirer of Malaysia’s long-time World No. 1 Nicol David (pictured after winning this year’s World Games), who was the first Asian to top the women’s rankings and has become arguably the greatest female player of all time.
She’s a smiling assassin. She has this lovely, ‘butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth’ smile, but then she’s such a vicious competitor. You wouldn’t be World No. 1 for that length of time without being fully driven. She’s a really powerful, intelligent, driven lady, but does everything with the utmost manners and respect and in the ideal way you’d want the World No. 1 to behave. From a squash point of view, she behaves impeccably on court.
From an ambassador point of view, she does everything and more for the sport, even with backing the 2020 bid. Outside of that, she works with UNICEF and other charities and is an envoy for them. She’s an awesome lady. I keep thinking that she’s still 22 when she’s now 30. Physically she looks great and she’s motivated, so she could go on for another period.
As the first Asian to become women’s World No. 1, how important has she been as a role model for the continent?
One thing that’s great about anyone who has become World No. 1 and is from a country that the sport is not necessarily known for, is that it gives everyone else hope. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Now someone from Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, wherever in Asia, can think: ‘If Nicol David can do it, I can do it as well.’
I do think that it changes the mindset of people. The amount of quality players that have come out of Asia in such a small time period is fantastic. The Hong Kong girls came third in this year’s World Junior Team Championships and it’s happening consistently, so someone like Nicol is so important on many different levels. It does give people hope, maybe subconsciously, and an understanding that it’s possible.
Have you watched a lot of the younger Asian women like Low Wee Wern (Malaysia), Dipika Pallikal (India), Annie Au and Joey Chan (both Hong Kong)? Do you think they can follow Nicol David’s lead?
They do well as it is, but there’s always that move from being a very good player to being the best or very near the best and normally it’s mental. Normally it takes a little shift with whatever that is, whether it’s people move from studying to become professional and then it can take a couple of years of touring in order to become strong and comfortable in order to come through again. There’s a lot of potential for all those players, but they just need to find that extra something that takes them from being a very good player to an excellent player.
In February 1998, you took over as World No. 1 from Jansher Khan, who had previously taken over the mantle from Jahangir Khan. How much did you cross paths with these two legends of the game?
When I was 11, I remember Jahangir came and did a tour of Scotland with his coach Rehmat Khan and Gary Waite, a Canadian who got to the top 10 in the world. They visited my club in Inverurie, a small town in the northeast of Scotland. Three juniors had the chance to play with Jahangir and I wasn’t one of them – and was gutted!
I remember sitting there grumbling and a journalist came in and asked me if I was upset. I said, ‘Yeah, I was upset I wasn’t involved’. He then asked me what I wanted to be in squash and I said: ‘I want to be the best in the world.’ That’s what I said when I was 11, when Jahangir was there. And I never got a chance to play him. I only played in one event that he was in before he retired. I lost early and he lost in the final to Jansher.
I played Jansher loads of times. They were exceptional players, both of them. Jahangir revolutionised the game with his training, with his hitting and with his power, with all these different things, and then Jansher came in and just followed on from Jahangir. He was the foil. Jahangir was fast and devastating and hard and powerful, and Jansher was loose, relaxed and counter attacking and everything else. But then Jansher learned how to play later on and became this attacking phenomenon as well, as he lost his fitness. And that’s when I played him.
I learned so much just from being on court with Jansher. It’s always the same. Those that played with Jahangir said that he was the best player that’s ever lived. I never got a chance to play him, so for me it was Jansher because at times when he was still physically fit he could attack, he could defend, he could move. Tactically he was so astute; mentally he was ‘tough as’. He did everything, as Jahangir did as well. For almost 20 years, one of them was World No. 1. There was no one else and if there was, it was only for a month here and there, but that’s a long time for two players to dominate any sport.
What do you pick out as the highlight of your own career?
The last thing I really did, which was winning the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. I was about to turn 33 (in April 2006) and it was the last thing I wanted to really win. I wanted to win the World Team and World Open individual [in December 2005], then the Commonwealth Games. I lost in the semi-finals of the World Open in Hong Kong, then won the World Team (with England) in Pakistan and won the Commonwealth Games (in March 2006).
Nicol on his way to beating Egypt’s Mohammad Abbas 3-0 to help England win the 2005 World Team Championship in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: AFP.
That meant the most to me because I’d been building up to it for 18 months and only played six events in the year so my ranking went down to sixth or seventh in the world. All I cared about was winning that event and I went and did it. It was the culmination of a number of things, because in 2001 I had transferred [from Scotland] to play for England and I’d been working with the team and with the players for five years.
It was almost the moment where I was finishing. I’d achieved everything with the England players, coaches and the training staff who I’d worked with all the way through, and then I was handing over the baton and that’s exactly what happened with the players who were around there. Lee Beachill went on to become World No. 1 after me (October 2004), Nick Matthew later went on to become World No. 1 (June 2010) and James Willstrop was World No. 1 (January 2012).
I feel kind of proud that I helped that happen, because the players believed that they could be the best players in the world because I was. I think Nick Matthew and James Willstrop felt that and maybe part of what I did helped make that possible. We were all part of a family and we got to that point together.
What are your thoughts on the incredible growth of Egyptian squash?
Egypt has always been a traditional squash-playing nation and there were a lot of great Egyptian players in the ’20s, ’30s, ’50s and so on. They then went through a period where they had wonderful players, but no one was really coming through and there were no actual programmes. And then a young man called Ahmed Barada became a good player. He became a superstar in Egypt after he won the World Junior title and won the British Junior Open four times – from the ages of 14 to 17 – which is almost unheard of. They then built tournaments and courts in front of the pyramids specifically for him to play in.
All of a sudden you have this superstar, although there were a lot of other juniors having great success around him. He became the superstar and was the catalyst, and created that buzz and that excitement that got others wanting to be like him and programmes shot up everywhere, although he never quite made it to being the best in the world (Barada peaked at World No. 2 in December 1998, when Nicol was No. 1).
All the clubs that had courts started to take it a lot more seriously and then it just snowballed and then another four or five players became very good. Amr Shabana became World No. 1 (in April 2006), then Karim Darwish (January 2009) and then Ramy Ashour (January 2010). All of a sudden, there was this conveyer belt of junior to senior players and females as well. They haven’t made it to the very top of the female game, but at the junior level they’re winning most of the titles.
So I think that initial programme, with Barada as a real superstar, helped by the glass court in front of the pyramids, blanket television coverage – that gave the sport a real boost and made people want to be a squash player. Who wouldn’t want to be a squash player if you were being treated like he was?
Barada was like a David Beckham of Egypt. That’s where it started from and it developed a whole life of its own. Now you have 3,000 kids playing an event at an amazing standard, fighting to win. You see that and you think, of course, that’s just going to breed success, with great coaches and good structures in the clubs.
You seem to have kept busy since retiring as a player. What have you been doing and what are you keeping busy with now?
Immediately after retiring I stepped into Eventis Sports Marketing, which is a company I have with a couple of friends. Mostly we run major events in the UK. This year we owned the Canary Wharf Classic, one of the top events of the year on the PSA World Tour. On top of that, we were the logistical onsite providers for the World Series final, male and female, and also the British Open.
I’m also involved with Power Plate studios. Power Plate is a vibrating platform and had two or three training studios when I was in London. It’s really interesting and is a piece of equipment I used that really helped me physically towards the end of my career. I still have one, which I use, although I sold the business a few years ago.
I’m involved with my father in Nicol Squash and Fitness, a sports club near Aberdeen in Scotland, and I was there working with him up until a few months ago. Now that I’ve moved to New York, I’ve left him to get on with it and he’s doing a great job.
Finally, I got involved with SquashSkills.com. It’s the leading, or only, online coaching resource and uses the best coaches and the best players in the world. It explains how to hit shots, all sorts of different shot techniques, how to perform, how to stay physically fit and more.
It’s a subscription-based service and we currently have about 850 videos with about 10-15 videos going up a week, each on a specific subject, so one video could be about backhand drops, the next about cross-court lobs from the back. We also have very specific things such as modules for beginners; how to serve, how to hold the racquet and so on. It’s a very in-depth resource.