SQUASH / MALAYSIAN OPEN REVIEW: Don’t write her off yet
EARLY last week, newly-crowned Malaysian Open winner Raneem El Weleily said it would be a while before the gap to Nicol David would be bridged but she surprised even herself with the ease with which she won the final on Saturday.
Throughout the week, Nicol had been far from the vintage form which has carried her to six world titles as she struggled to impose herself on her opponents, leading to her four-game defeat to Raneem including a humbling 11-2 hiding in the fourth.
It used to be that even when at her worst, Nicol still had an edge over her rivals but on Saturday's evidence, it is clear that the world's top-ranked player can no longer let her guard down against hard-charging younger opponents.
But before anyone claims that it is the beginning of the end for Nicol, they had better think again.
The touches, the volleys and the drives are still there, in fact Nicol's repertoire has not diminished overnight. What has happened is that the rest of the field have raised the bar, as shown not just by Raneem but also by Low Wee Wern.
Wee Wern not only beat World No 5 Madeline Perry and No 4 Jenny Duncalf but came so close to making the final when she lost 11-9 in the fifth game to Raneem.
Raneem, who lost her previous eight meetings with Nicol, had the rare opportunity to play Malaysia's top two players back-to-back and when offered the chance to rate her opponents in this tournament, the Egyptian opted to take the middle road.
"It's hard to compare them because when I played Wee Wern, I was really nervous but against Nicol it was the reverse as I had no pressure. Nicol is still the best player in the world and I am happy to have won.
"But don't be upset with Nicol. She'll be back," said Raneem, who could offer Nicol a chance of revenge at the Carol Weymuller Open in New York on Sept 27-30 if both make the final.
Nicol's strength in the face of adversity has often been her mental fortitude but her opponents sensed something was amiss right from the beginning.
In the first round itself, India's Joshna Chinappa, back from a long injury layoff, made it harder than usual for Nicol, who was taken to a tie-break in the second game and toiled in the third while Australian Donna Urquhart took a game off Nicol for the first time and even recovered from a 7-0 deficit at one stage.
Losing a 7-0 lead was very unlike Nicol and that was the cue for Annie Au and Laura Massaro to probe for a weaknesses in her armoury as both players claimed the first games in their respective matches.
Nicol stormed back each time but there was no way past Raneem in the final as the Egyptian savoured the biggest title triumph of her career but the world champion will now return to Amsterdam to evaluate any changes she deems necessary.
"Raneem will always be up there and she can just turn it on whenever she wants to. They (young players) are all so dangerous and today (Saturday) I got Raneem on her good day.
"There is always pressure to perform and maybe I'll have to change my mindset. I will return to Amsterdam and then go to New York where all the top players will be there and I'm going to get my revenge," said Nicol, who understandably looked downcast but seemed determined to recover from this setback.