Squash: Nicol relishes his date with destiny

British champion is ready to assume the world throne which Jansher Khan made his own for a decade

HE GREETS you with a smile and a confident shake of the hand; the Scot who, in the space of a single year, has become a dominant force in world squash. The name Peter Nicol may not yet have the lasting gravitas of Jonah Barrington, at least not in this country, but you can be assured of one certainty. It soon will.

Barrington's name lives on in legendary status partly because he was the last British squash player to be crowned world champion, although in strict terms a world open did not exist in the early 1970s when the man interrupted the steady flow of Pakistani success.

Nicol should, and most probably will, lay this particular ghost to bed at this year's World Championships in Qatar, which began on Saturday. Don't take anyone else's word for it, though. Take his instead.

"Yes, I should win it," he said, quite freely, "shouldn't I? I don't mind being the favourite at all. It tells me that I must have been playing well this year, and it underlines other people's expectations."

By anyone's sporting standards, Nicol has enjoyed a quite remarkable year. A top ranking in the world, a British Open title, to add to five others on the tour, and a Commonwealth Games gold medal have all come his relentless way. Any challengers to his lofty position seem, including the permanently injured Jansher Khan, to have fallen by the wayside.

There remains now one last, solitary piece of the jigsaw to complete. The world title. If Nicol can continue his blistering run of form, then it is his. It would round off Nicol's annus mirabilis.

Yet one, final, doubt remains. He should have won the world title last year, but instead fell to Australia's Rodney Eyles in the final.

"People assume I am the world champion," he said with a wry smile. "I have to tell them that, although I am the world No 1, I am not actually the champion. Eyles was hungrier than me last year.

With Jansher withdrawing through injury, he saw it as his big, and possibly last, chance and he took it. It taught me a great lesson."

Which was what? "It showed me the proper way to prepare mentally for a major tournament. It made me understand that you have to be extra focussed for a major, and that, however talented a player you may be, you have to want the title more than anyone else.

"Everything about playing in a major is harder, and the defeat made me understand the importance of the tournament, and the pressures that come with it. I didn't play particularly badly that week, nor in the final. But Eyles was amazing. He'd played poorly prior to the tournament but played great when it really mattered."

As any sporting achiever will tell you, failure, however relative it may be, provides a great education. Nicol duly went on to beat Jansher Khan in the British Open final last Spring to notch up the first of what is promising to be a vast collection of major titles.

"The lessons I learned from the world final defeat meant that I entered the British Open with a totally different mind-set. I was completely focused."

More success followed as Nicol set to work cementing his new-found status at the top of the world pile.

Most of his achievements were for himself, the benefits reaped from a brave decision seven years ago to leave his Aberdeen home and venture down to the bright lights of London to join the coach, Neil Harvey, at Chingford's Connaught Club, where an all-out campaign began to produce the player he is today.

Yet winning the inaugural squash gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur was something very different. "It was huge," was how Nicol first put it. "Scotland only won three golds, and I was very privileged to be the first winner for my country. Someone even played `Scotland the Brave' on his bagpipes when I walked out on to the court for the final. It was an incredibly special moment for me."

From a professional point of view, beating Canada's Jonathan Power, previously Nicol's bogey man, proved to be the icing on the 25-year-old's cake. "I was so happy to have beaten him that it was all I could think of in the initial seconds after winning. Then I remembered I had just become the Commonwealth champion. It was the perfect combination for me."

Nicol further rubber-stamped his ascendancy over the Canadian recently by defeating him again, this time in the final of the Heliopolis Open in Cairo. It sets the Scot up nicely for his final assault of the year. But what really makes Nicol the firm favourite to become world champion is his state of mind.

By his own admission, he felt uncomfortable at first with his new world ranking. "Jansher had been around for so long that I felt like an imposter," he admitted.

"Winning the British Open definitely helped me to relax. After losing both the British and World finals last year, it was obviously time for me to start winning a major title.

"I've only just started to feel comfortable about being the world No 1. Jansher was such a legend that it has taken a long time to shake off his No 1 image. But he seems to be gone now, and the gap between me and the rest is growing by the week. I'm winning more and more tournaments, and there doesn't seem to be a great challenge, or at least not a lasting one, from anyone."

Really? "I think it must be pretty demoralising for some of the other players," Nicol continued. "They'd all waited for Jansher to go. I remember last year when Jansher withdrew from tournaments. Suddenly 10 or so players believed they stood a chance of winning. Incredibly, for squash, we all told each other this.

"Now I've suddenly accelerated away, and I intend fully to enjoy my own dominant patch. I'm not saying I'm going to emulate Jansher. That would be practically impossible. But I don't see why I can't have it my way for the next four years."

Nicol does not see why he should not become the world champion this week, either. "I'm better equipped to win it than I was last year, that's for sure," he confirmed, with a confident nod of his head. "I'm more aware, and I'm a great deal hungrier."

There is one, final reason why he believes he will place that final piece in his sporting jigsaw. "Jansher Khan ruled the squash world for a decade," he announces, as he trots off for yet more practice on the court. "That was his time. I think now it's my time."

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