LONDON (Reuters) - Almost unbeatable in the sport she describes as “boxing with rackets” world champion Nicol David is proving a skilled saleswoman too as the face of squash’s bid to join the Olympics.
A tough cookie on the court, the 29-year-old’s easy-going charm off it is helping propel the sport towards what she believes would be a golden new era.
The Malaysian seven-times World Open champion has already wowed tennis great Roger Federer to the cause and in May she will join a World Squash Federation (WSF) delegation to St Petersburg hoping to convince the IOC to give the frenetic racket sport the green light to debut at the 2020 Games.
Twice it had the door slammed in its face, failing to convince the IOC that it deserved its place at London 2012 or at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 when golf was preferred.
After some serious re-branding and with David as its figurehead, however, there is a sense of quiet optimism.
Softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu as well as wrestling, which was surprisingly dropped from the IOC’s list of core sports for the 2020 Games, all have compelling cases for inclusion.
And with the IOC likely to shortlist three sports in May before a final decision in September there will be some anxious weeks ahead for David who admits it will be a “nerve-racking” 30 minutes when she joins the squash delegation to make its final presentation in the Russian city.
“It’s exciting and nerve-racking at the same time,” David, told Reuters by telephone from Amsterdam - her adopted city.
“Winning matches on the court is probably more natural for me than making a presentation to the IOC executives. But this is what we’ve been waiting for and I feel this is our time.”
Campaigning while keeping her game in tip-top shape has been challenging for David, who is described by WSF President N Ramachandran as the “perfect ambassador”, but she thinks the hard work all the top players are putting in will be rewarded.
“It’s not a burden, I‘m doing it because I love the sport,” David, a household name in Malaysia, said.
“I’ll play as big a role as I can because we want to show the best of what we have to offer. I really want to see this through. We’re the only big sport left out of the Olympic programme and if we get in it would take squash to a new level entirely.”
Swiss Federer was impressed when he met David in Rotterdam earlier this year and the photo of the two of them has proved to be gold dust for the bid’s profile.
”Roger was gracious and generous with his time,“ she said. ”He used to play a lot with his father and was very knowledgeable about the personalities in our sport.
“He can relate to what we’re doing because he is passionate about the Olympics. Maybe I’ll give him a game next time!”
Federer, a silver medallist at the London 2012 Games, has spoken up in support of squash’s bid, saying earlier this year: ”It would be a huge boost if squash were in the Olympics.
“All of a sudden big countries like Russia would invest more in squash and the game could take off.”
Sadly, time is not on David’s side. The brutal nature of squash means it would be tough to stay at the top in seven years time, although she has not given up on an Olympic medal.
“I’ll see how my body can cope with the intensity of the sport for another seven years, but it’s a huge motivation to stay at the top,” she said. “I would have to pace myself but it would be a dream come true.”
A “yes” vote would possibly come too late for many of the current top-ranked players such as Britain’s James Willstrop, winner of last week’s Canary Wharf Classic in London.
But for others, such as Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy, who lost to Willstrop in an enthralling 66-minute semi-final, 2020 is a tantalising prospect.
“I will be 29 in 2020 which is about the peak age for a squash player so it will be the perfect time for me,” world number five El Shorbagy, whose younger brother Marwan is rising fast, told Reuters after a practise session on the kind of glass-sided court that has so boosted squash’s visual appeal.
“It would be huge in Egypt, we already have five top-10 players so imagine if we were in the Olympics. It would be a joy for my brother and I to be battling for gold.”
WSF President Ramachandran believes the Olympic bid process has already energised a sport played in 185 countries.
“We genuinely wanted to change the sport, not just for the Olympic bid,” he told Reuters in London.
”We have changed the sport totally, whether its the TV that brings added value, the playing area, the broadcast area, look at it from any angle, the sport is better.
“I talk to court manufacturers and where in some traditional regions the sport was declining, now the order books are full.”
But will it be enough, especially with wrestling’s place in the bidding process and high-profile support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, a possible spanner in the works?
“The IOC took the decision to drop wrestling, I‘m not here to complain about it, that’s their decision,” Ramachandran shrugged.
“I think, eat, drink, sleep squash, that’s it. We’ve given this our best shot given our limited resources and hopefully we shall win. I‘m an incurable optimist so I will keep trying.”
Editing by Alison Wildey