Squash: Triumph of the empire builder who ended the reign of Jansher

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When Peter Nicol supplanted Jansher Khan as squash's world No 1 last week, he was breaking a 10-year stranglehold on the sport, as well as becoming the first Briton to hold the position for a quarter of a century.

If it was tough getting there, it will be just as difficult to hold on to it. But it is a challenge the Scot will relish.

He is the first to admit that his battle with Jansher Khan is not quite over but, as Peter Nicol enjoys his first week as the world's No 1 squash player, he knows that he holds all the cards at last.

Ambitious, determined, some have even said arrogant in his self-belief, the 24-year-old from Inverurie, near Aberdeen, sits in the comfort of the Connaught Squash Club in Chingford, having snatched the top spot from the man who has dominated the sport for the past 10 years.

"I feel very content to have done it," he admits."But I'm also very determined. There's still a great deal of work to be done."

It has not been an overnight achievement. Far from it. You can go back to when, as an 11-year-old, he told his local newspaper that, one day, he would be the best. At 19 he turned professional, left the comfort of his home and travelled down south to London to pursue his sporting dreams.

Yet it was when he beat Jansher Khan for the first time that the Scot realised becoming the world's No 1 was a distinct possibility."It was back in 1994, at the Leeke's Welsh Open," he recalled."Jansher didn't play that well, and probably didn't take me too seriously either, and for the next few games we played against each other he gave me a bit of a lesson. But I'd opened the door."

Still, it took the best part of three years before Nicol was ready to begin a process which saw him systematically wear down his Pakistani rival. In last year's British Open final Nicol lost to the defending champion, but in defeat he recognised a shift in the balance of power.

"He won 3-2, but at two hours and 10 minutes, it turned out to be the longest final ever. I took only positives from the result. I knew, at his age, and after what he has achieved, that he wouldn't want to go through another match like that again."

A month later they met in what was supposed to be an exhibition match at the Connaught Club. After the drama of the British Open, both players treated the encounter with great importance. Nicol won, and then repeated the feat in the final of the Al-Abram International amid the splendid backdrop of the Giza pyramids.

"Afterwards Jansher was devastated," Nicol recalled. "I think it was dawning on him that his time was coming to an end."

Rising to No 2 in the world over the summer, Nicol took a little time to settle into such dizzy heights, losing in three successive semi-finals in the autumn, the last against Jansher Khan. In the fourth tournament of this season, however, Nicol hit back, beating his rival 3-2 at the Kuwait Open.

"That made it three out of four, and nobody had ever beaten him so many times in the course of a single year. In Kuwait he came back from 2-0 down to draw level at 2-2, so that showed how hungry he was."

A further tournament win, at the Mahindra in Bombay last December, completed Nicol's elevation, although his new ranking was only made official last week.

"For 20 minutes after the final in Bombay I was ecstatic, because I knew what it meant," he said. "But the excitement went pretty soon after that. Like most things, the obtaining was more exciting than the achieving. Besides, I know what I still have to do."

For a start, Nicol does not believe he has seen the back of Khan. "Jansher's still got a few goals left to achieve, like accumulating more World and British Opens than Jahangir Khan. I'm fully expecting a backlash, now that I'm No 1 and he's lost the position he's held for so long.

"I'll be prepared for this, and if he doesn't stop me beating him in the next two or three tournaments, then I reckon it's going to be too late.The British Open will be crucial. He'll be defending a title he still wants badly, because another win there would draw him right behind Jahangir's record.

"I'm also not sure how real he saw my threat last year. This time he might try harder. I hope he does. If he comes back strong, it will give me the chance to prove how good I've become. If I still beat him, then I think, mentally, he'll be gone. It would also prove me worthy of taking over his mantle."

You sense that there is still an element of Nicol wanting to prove to people, maybe even himself, that he deserves this moment. Many have tried before to remove Jansher from his lofty position in the world of squash, but all, up until now, have failed to do so.

"I always said that I would become No 1, even right back in the early days of being a professional player," Nicol explained. "I think some of the players thought I was just being arrogant. A lot of them, especially those who had played through much of Jansher's era, and tried themselves to beat him, didn't think there was any way I could do it.

"What Jansher achieved was phenomenal. I can't see anyone emulating his record, at least not for a very long time. It would have been great to have been on court when Jansher was playing his absolute best, but there's nothing I can do about that now. I don't think there were any great players during his era, just very good ones. That's where I put myself at the moment. If others take my ranking then I will just be very good."

A British and a world title would help to strengthen his position as the world's best. Nobody expected him to beat Jansher Khan in last year's British Open final, but by the time of the World Open last November, a tournament Jansher missed, Nicol was the hot favourite to become the first British player to become world champion since Jonah Barrington back in 1973. Instead, he lost to Australia's Rodney Eyles, a man he beats regularly.

"There's quite a bit to rectify, even if I am the No 1 player," Nicol conceded."For a start, I've got to start winning British and World Open titles, the two majors of the season. And I also failed to beat Canada's Jonathan Power in four matches last year, so there's always something to work for."

Would he swap his world ranking for victories in those two majors finals last year? Nicol shakes his head."No way. I'd rather be No 1. It says that, over the course of the whole of last year, I was the best in the world, not just in a couple of tournaments."

But what about that World Open final defeat? "I played well, but I wasn't exceptional. In fact, I didn't play that great throughout the tournament. It meant that I had long, tough games in the quarter and semi-finals, whilst Eyles had an easier passage.

"Maybe I also underestimated how hungry he was. Without Jansher competing he saw this as his best, and possibly his last chance to become world champion, and he took it. It was a huge match, and I didn't give it the respect it deserved."

All of this is said with little regret, just acceptance. Isn't he kicking himself for passing up such an opportunity? "Not really, no," he answered. "It was another lesson which has been learnt. Now there's only one further step to take, and that is to actually win the majors. And besides, I am No 1, aren't I?"

Indeed he is. Peter Nicol's achievement is a triumph over some adversity. He maintains that leaving home for the smoke of London was the only course of action he could take, but within six months of the move his mother died, the victim of a rare illness called scleroderma, which leads to the breakdown of collagen.

This, naturally, was a crucial moment in his life, and his career. His coach, Neil Harvey, the former England No 1 himself, nursed the young man through a desperately difficult time. "It was a very hard time for me," he said. "Neil helped me to focus my emotion on my game, and the grief made me more aggressive, and more determined."

In the space of two years his ranking shot up from 250th to seventh, a position from which he could launch his attack on Jansher Khan. Last week his relentless pursuit finally paid off.

So what now? With the likes of Power, Eyles, and even English players like Simon Parke, Peter Marshal and Mark Challoner, who surprisingly beat Nicol in the British Championships recently, he knows he is not going to have it easy from now on, and that is even without considering the challenge fully expected from Pakistan.

"After Jansher's domination it would be good for the sport if a few of us shared the honours around a bit," Nicol suggested, before hurrying off for an appointment on court.

It's not what he wants, though, surely. "Oh no," he replied. "A period of domination by a Scot would do me just fine."

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