Squash: No-nonsense Nicol knocking on the door of greatness: A mild young Scot has the ability to become Britain's first world No 1 for more than 20 years. Richard Eaton reports

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WHEN you are a loser and treated as a winner you are unusual. When you are mild and shy and yet billed as a future No 1 in the harsh and egotistical world of professional men's squash, you must be exceptional.

Peter Nicol is. His defeat in the final of the national championships last week contained such impressive skill, courage and endurance that within an hour the winner, Peter Marshall, was taking advice from the former world No 1, Jonah Barrington, on what was needed to remain the leading Briton.

The Scottish champion showed he may have the qualities to overhaul the England No 1, though few would deny Marshall's excellence in a marvellous 103-minute battle which also confirmed him as a potential world- beater.

'Peter Nicol was meek and mild when I met him and he's still very respectful,' said David Pearson, the coach perhaps most responsible for the 20-year- old's dramatic development. 'But that's exactly why he has done better than some of the English players I have coached. Because he doesn't have so much of an ego he is more attentive. He has more learning potential than they do.'

Nicol's startling success underlines Pearson's criticism of some of the leading players south of the border. The quiet man has won seven of his first 10 tournaments on the world circuit, remained unbeaten in 20 matches for Scotland, and climbed more than 140 places in a year to become world No 14.

As it is more than 20 years since Barrington was Britain's last man at the top, it is hardly surprising that a sense of anticipation rises quickly at the slightest hint that there might be another.

Grampian Television decided several weeks ago to start filming a year in the life of Nicol, confident that they would have the progress of a champion on their hands.

Neil Harvey, the former England No 1 to whom Pearson passed Nicol for management, training and housing, is prepared to lay his reputation on the line. 'Pete's got it and he'll make it,' he asserted.

Two year's tutelage with Harvey and work at Cannon's Club in London have helped toughen the unworldly lad from Inverurie, a town of only 10,000 people near Aberdeen. Physically Nicol can now last far better the long matches he occasionally used to lose and mentally there are important developments too.

'He's changed for the better since he's been with Neil,' Pearson said. 'It shows in conversation. He used to feed off others' and now he makes his own. He also presents himself better.'

Nicol, who decided against taking a place at Aberdeen University in order to concentrate on a squash regimen that often starts at 7.30am, knows quite well how he has progressed. 'Sometimes the work and the life is frustrating but I just try to think about being No 1,' he said. 'It's the little signs you give off about what you are prepared to do which can be important at the highest level.'

Nicol against Marshall signified confidence that a sound all-round game, excellent stamina and increasing tactical variety could still prevail even when he was two games down.

Could those two now push each other all the way to the top? Marshall thought so. Nicol hardly considered it. 'There'll be others to push me,' he answered.

Modest though he may appear, the Scotsman intends pushing past the Englishman to the summit that beckons.

(Photograph omitted)