Nicol David walked incognito through Grand Central Terminal this week, as if she were just another commuter on her way to Track 25.
If this were her native country of Malaysia, David might have been mobbed by worshipers. But this was New York, where the sport of professional squash is paying only a fleeting visit.
David was in town to participate in the Tournament of Champions, staged this month at Grand Central for the 20th successive year. Frenetic travelers who strode past the mostly transparent glass court near East 42nd Street did not quite know what to make of it.
They were most likely not aware that David is the longtime queen of squash.
David’s résumé is nothing short of astounding. After turning professional in 2000 at 17, she won the World Open title eight times and retained the No. 1 ranking for 108 consecutive months, a record streak that ended in July 2015.
Now 33, she has dropped to No. 7, but she has been a top 10 player for 152 straight months, nearly 13 years. David is the Serena Williams or Roger Federer of women’s squash, and she shows no sign of quitting.
“As long as my body is going to keep me going, I will play,” she said before a practice session Thursday. “As long as you have the heart and the fire and the passion, the willingness to get up and train, do what you want to do, then it can go on as long as you want.”
It has been going on decades now for David, a nimble, slim athlete who will play a first-round match Saturday evening against Jenny Duncalf of England. David was spotted by Malaysian scouts in her home state of Penang as a young child and was winning tournaments before she turned 10.
Her father, Desmond David, who played on the national soccer team, encouraged her development. Because squash is so respected in Malaysia, Nicol received significant funding from the national sports council. That backing allowed her to relocate to Amsterdam, where her coach, Liz Irving, is based.
The council still sponsors David, allowing her to travel with her coach and physical therapist to international tournaments. Endorsements back home and prize money also help her maintain a demanding lifestyle.
“I think what this sport gives, you can’t find anywhere else,” David said. “Nothing can match the high of competing and playing for your life on the court. You have to be in it to know it. Being out there and playing your heart out. All the prep and training goes into one great performance and tournament. That’s what you strive for.”
Grand Central is certainly one of the more unusual venues for the Professional Squash Association’s world tour. The 10,000-pound portable court is set up in Vanderbilt Hall for about nine days. The court is so close to the 42nd Street entrance that outside weather conditions directly affect the speed of play.
“It depends on the cold, on humidity,” David said. “Every day could be different. Today is warmer; everybody is sweating. The last few years it was very cold, the ball was hard and didn’t travel as much. You had to hit it very hard and adapt.”
The pro squash tour staged a major outdoor championship last fall adjacent to the pyramids in Egypt, a country where the sport has taken off. David snapped photos of the pyramids on her way to matches so she could later remind herself of the surreal experience.
Egyptian players now dominate the sport, the way that Kenyans rule the marathon. The three highest-ranked women, including the No. 1 player, Nour El Sherbini, are Egyptian, as are seven of the nine highest-ranked men.
“There is a culture of squash there,” said David, who could meet her rival, El Sherbini, in the third round at the Tournament of Champions. “The kids want to be the next world champion. You can make good money, get a career, be recognised by your country.”
While squash is popular in many parts of the world, it would gain a far greater following if it were accepted as an Olympic sport. David has been at the forefront of a campaign to get it included, hoping that it will be adopted by the International Olympic Committee during her lifetime.
For now, there is the next tournament, and the one after that. David’s slight build and her fitness level allow her to move more quickly than most competitors, to attack forward and volley aggressively. Although she is losing more often these days, it is not that her game has deteriorated; the sport has evolved and the opponents are better.
“When I won my first world title in 2005, when I got to No. 1 in 2006, that level then, the way I played then, would not get me to the qualifying level now,” David said. “My quality has progressed. Every year I’m growing and learning more.”
She enjoys comparisons to Federer.
“Roger actually played squash before, and you can see the squash influence,” David said. “That’s what I’m claiming, anyway.”
While David practiced in relative anonymity at Grand Central on Thursday, there was at least one observer who appreciated her presence. Jahangir Khan was unbeaten in 555 matches, from 1981 to 1986, and is considered squash’s greatest player. He quit at age 29, he said, when he was losing only on rare occasions.
“My decision was getting out at the top,” Khan said. “But it’s phenomenal what she did for women’s squash. It’s not easy playing at the top level.”
David plays on. And you may want to take note, on your way to Track 25. –The New York Times