Datuk Nicol David and Sivasangari Subramaniam Go Toe-to-toe in a Match Made in Squash Heaven

Training season is over.

Of the clashing schedules, the laborious logistics, and the challenge of hitting the right note between sports and style, the optics of getting two squash supremos in the same room did not strike as the chief cause for concern. That was until Datuk Nicol Ann David, via her representative, expressed her reservations about being paired with Sivasangari Subramaniam before our story even began to take shape.

Vanity had nothing to do with it. They may have been foes on the court but are friends off it, with nothing but immense respect for each other. Their first interaction—barring brief encounters at training sessions—according to Sivasangari, was at the 2016 World Team Championship in Paris. The two even went head-to-head at the 2018 Asian Games’ finals before David clinched the win.

However, the former world number one is aware of the unfair comparisons made by the public, pitting her against the rising star. She refused to add more fuel to the fire. David, treading ever so carefully, believes that Sivasangari is a formidable athlete in her own right and that she shouldn’t be pressured into replicating her successes.

“Everybody will have their say on the matter but know that no two athletes have the same paths. Do not let the noise distract you from staying on your path,” said David, offering her advice to Sivasangari and other aspiring athletes. It is the same message communicated at her non-governmental organisation, Nicol David Organisation (NDO), established two years ago.

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Seeking to empower underprivileged children through sport and education, NDO provides its mentees with subsidised after-school squash training and English tutoring through its lead programme Little Legends. The initiative spans five years for each student, whose progress will be monitored throughout their primary education, and sees David as the head coach for the squash syllabus.

“I truly believe that sport can change lives and give these children a chance to be more confident and resilient in whatever they do,” she said, her lips moving into that bright, familiar smile. “We aim to ensure they get into university, whether or not they become squash players, because they may not have access to that otherwise. So that’s what I have been working on since I retired,” she added.

But retirement hadn’t been smooth sailing for the Penang-born. David recalled a particular instance where it dawned on her that the time had come for her to hang up her spikes. “It was during the 2017 US Open, when I lost a little bit earlier in the rounds, that I began asking myself if I wanted to keep going,” she said, her eyes pensive, reliving one of the darkest moments in her career.

“I went to Colombia shortly after that to train with their national team. That’s when I touched base with a long-time friend and former squash player Mariana de Reyes who is also the co-founder and chief executive officer of NDO,” she shared. Reconnecting with de Reyes turned out to be the ticket to ease David into retirement. “She helped me through that process of letting go and finding a new purpose,” she added.

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When asked if she missed being on the squash court, in competition mode, David did not mince her words. “I don’t miss it one bit,” she said. “Watching the game from a distance reminds me how brutal it can be. All the hard work that goes into it, the pain… you are working day in, and day out without having the space for anything else. It was a pure, hundred per cent dedication,” she added.

David indeed had given her all, as far as playing competitively is concerned, and she has no regrets. Not even on missing out on the chance to contend at the Olympic Games. For context, it was announced late last year that squash has been officially selected, for the first time ever, for inclusion at the prestigious sporting event, specifically the 2028 edition of the Olympics in Los Angeles.

“I am very proud that I could be part of the campaign to get squash into the Olympics. It will give the sport a platform to be more recognised by the world,” she said. While we will not be seeing David on the Olympics court, best believe that her presence will be felt as she is set to lead the Malaysian contingent at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris in her role as deputy chef de mission.

Who knows, in four years, Malaysia could be the first to bag the gold medal for squash. It is certainly a possibility with Sivasangari eagerly waiting in the wings. After all, the Kedah-born has been on an upward trajectory; especially with her triumph over world number two Hania El Hammamy of Egypt at the recent London Classic, which earned her the nickname “The Giant Killer.”

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“Winning the gold medal at the Olympics is the ultimate dream of mine,” said the hopeful Sivasangari. The 25-year-old has come a long way since she first picked up the racket at the tender age of eight. Finding her match in squash after taking a stab at golf, badminton, and swimming, Sivasangari showed great potential after conquering the junior tournaments back in Alor Setar. She then moved to Kuala Lumpur in pursuit of education and better players to spar with.

“I train six days a week; two sessions of squash each day, aside from gym and running intervals,” she shared her routine en route to the big O. But techniques and tactics are only half the battle, the other being mental strength. The unseen adversary—volatility of emotions and external pressure—is equally formidable and can sometimes get the better of her as prepped as she is. Her stumbles at the El Gouna International and World Squash Championships in Egypt, shortly after her crowning moment in London, were tough pills to swallow.

“It’s very disappointing, especially when I know I’m playing well, but sometimes it’s just not your day,” she reflected, before adding that losses are harder to deal with when her performance falls short of her own expectations. “I would try to suck it up, maybe take a day or two to reflect on what happened during the match, and then go back into training,” she said.

Helping the player tune out the noise is mental coach Jesse Engelbrecht, with whom she has been working for the last year. “It has made a huge difference in my game in terms of controlling my emotions,” she attested. It’s a crucial part of the training, she stressed, noting that it would be impossible to be consistent on the court with the mounting pressure on her. “How are you going to handle it? Definitely not by hitting the ball harder,” she added.

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Now that she has asserted herself as a force to be reckoned with on the international level, climbing the ranks with every match—she is currently the world number 10—the stakes are higher than ever. Eagle-eyed fans are watching her every move, receiving her wins with much adoration and her losses with vitriol. Has she found her footing as a public figure?

“I don’t like it,” she said about fame and celebrity. “I understand that it comes with the territory but I’m not doing this (playing squash) for that. That’s mostly why I’m isolating myself in the United States. I want to stay away from all that so I don’t get distracted,” she added. Her laser focus is partly due to the fact that athletes have an extremely limited shelf life and she is well aware of it.

“You generally don’t get to stay in this field until you are, like, 50 as there’s a significantly increased risk of injury when you’re older,” she mused, after taking a beat. “Obviously, there are goals that I want to achieve before I retire and it does get frustrating when I don’t get the desired outcome. But you just get back up and try again,” she added, keeping her eyes on the prize.

That being said, the young player has her whole career ahead of her and the recent showcases are just the beginning. With her fierce determination, unbounded ambitions, and the inspiring David watching on the sidelines—their paths, once parallel but distant, have now converged—Sivasangari has everything she needs to go the distance.

Photography: Chuan Looi
Styling: Sarah Chong
Hair: Cody Chua
Makeup: Cat Yong
Photography Assistant: Richy Chye