Squash: Nicol has the world at hand: Ian Ridley meets the Scottish squash player with a high ambition

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The Independent Online
THERE may be, you suggest to Peter Nicol, some professionals in individual sports who are reluctant to succeed in their own country, frightened to step into the all-seeing arc lights of attention. 'Well, that's not me,' he replies firmly.

Nicol is decisively of the new breed of young sporting turks with the whatever-it-takes attitude necessary for top-level competition these days. 'Severe' is a word that constantly crops up in conversation with him about the demands, both on and off court, of his chosen game of squash, which Jonah Barrington once described as boxing with rackets and Sir Noel Coward saw as flagellation rather than exercise.

At 20 years old, Nicol has gatecrashed the world's top 12 with remarkable victories this year over the No 1 Jansher Khan and No 2 Brett Martin. He enters this week's Hi-Tec British Open at Wembley Conference Centre as No 11 seed, having leapt 200 places in 18 months.

The steel now apparent in his eyes and sensed in his soul was not immediately evident, though, according to his first coach, the former England player David Pearson, who took on the then 16-year-old Scot in an exhibition match at his home club at Inverurie near Aberdeen. He was impressed by his natural ability and invited him to join his stable of players in Yorkshire. Financed by his parents, Nicol did. 'He lacked confidence, he was very inward and quiet, quite different from how he is now,' Pearson says. 'He always had it, but it was just a matter of whether he would get his head together.'

Pearson turned Nicol over to Neil Harvey, the former England No 1 and tour-toughened veteran of the world circuit, at Connaught's Club, in Chingford, Essex. 'Neil's a lot harder than me in mental apsects of the game,' Pearson says. 'I think also the death of Peter's mother 14 months ago had a big effect on him and made him more single-minded.'

Under Harvey's tutelage, Nicol won seven 'second division' tournaments last season, each yielding prize money of around dollars 5,000; then came the Leekes Classic at Cardiff in February and the match against Jansher. 'I had played him before but my aim then was just to keep running and keep him on court for a long time. He got fed up and gave me a game,' says Nicol. 'This time, I saw him the night before the match and I knew I was going to win. I know he doesn't like me saying this but I was sure he was overweight. I scented the kill from the moment I went on.'

The win against Martin, in the Portuguese Open last month, pleased him even more as he had done it with only 20 hours' rest from his previous match and illustrated to him that he can put together a tournament, rather than record an isolated win. 'To beat them was, I was going to say, beyond my wildest dreams, but you have got to believe you can, haven't you?'

Another turning point came for him, he believes, in a recent win in an exhibition match for television over Peter Marshall, the English No 1 and No 4 in the world, himself only 22 and beginning to form a rivalry with Nicol that is breathing some fresh air into the lungs of a sport which has not seen a world-class Briton since Barrington was winning the British Open more than 20 years ago. 'It's becoming intense,' Nicol says.

Many judges within the game believe Nicol to have the greater potential - there remain questions about Marshall's innovative double- handed style under pressure at the highest level - and Nicol himself talks of when, not if, he becomes the world No 1.

'If application and work rate are anything to go by, then he should be No 1,' Neil Harvey says. 'He has such a fertile mind and is so keen to learn.'

'I can't see any reason why I shouldn't be the best,' Nicol says, 'if I keep working hard (at least four hours on court every day; weights three times a week) and stay clear of injuries.'

(Photograph omitted)