By RJ Mitchell
Former World No.2 Liz Irving believes that while Nour El Sherbini’s second victory at the season-ending CIB PSA World Tour Finals has confirmed her as the greatest player of her era, the argument over who is the women’s G.O.A.T – greatest of all time – remains open to debate.
During an impressive playing career the Australian lost three British Open finals over two decades to two of the front runners for the ultimate accolade in the women’s game, losing the 1988 final to New Zealand legend Susan Devoy and in 1994 and 1995 to fellow Aussie great Michelle Martin.
Martin was further to defeat Irving in the 1993 World Open final in Johannesburg while Irving was also a team mate of five-time world champion Sarah Fitz-Gerald in an all-conquering Australian women’s team which claimed world glory four times in the 1990s.
While in her coaching career, she helped coach another outstanding candidate for the title of ‘the greatest’, Nicol David to a record eight world titles and the World No.1 ranking as well as guiding Vanessa Atkinson to the summit of the rankings and the 2004 World Championships title.
“It’s always a bit tricky when we talk about who is the greatest as all eras are different. Susan Devoy in my era was a fierce competitor and an amazing player and I wouldn’t like to make the statement that El Sherbini is the greatest,” said Irving.
“All great champions have different weapons and strengths but if we are talking the current era and generation then Nour is by far the greatest player out there. Technically and tactically she just plays the game so well, has a superb technique and what she can do with angles and her patterns of play are just fantastic. Her margins are so fine yet she gets it right nearly every time.”
What would be the result if a hypothetical World Tour Finals featuring the great and the good of all eras were to be played?
“Now that would be really interesting. I’ve competed against all of them and I must say that Susan Devoy was the toughest competitor out of everyone but they all had their strengths,” said Irving.
“For Nicol [David], the way she played the game, what it required mentally from her to be World No.1 uninterrupted for nine years, and that is not anything against the standard around her at all, it was just her huge focus, mental capacity, and hunger to train combined with a discipline that was absolutely outstanding.
Liz Irving (left) with Nicol David (right) at the 2012 British Open
“Nicol may not have been the type of player that Sherbini is and goes out hitting nicks, but they are different players. What Nicol did mentally was unbelievable, it stands for itself if you are World No.1 for nine years uninterrupted and won eight world titles and should probably have won a couple more but for the fact she lost the plot mentally in the two finals she was beaten in.
“So it is always goings to be an argument who is the greatest of all time but the answer for me is that they are all great as they have all done amazing things so I think it’s risky when you say these things.
“Michelle Martin was a very tough competitor and technically and tactically amazing and a very fierce competitor and her record and her period of dominance proved that and Sarah Fitz-Gerald had a great period in the World Championships but Susan, for me, set the standard. She took the ball incredibly early and you were never settled on the tee with Susan but they play differently now.
“When Nicol peaked in her performances she produced some that were impeccable as far as the athletic side, the mental side, and the strategy that she used in her game and she really played some tremendous matches that were amazing.
“But Sherbini is a three-dimensional player whereas a lot of players can be one dimensional or two dimensional in their play but Nour has it all pace, angles, disguise, delay and hold so she is the best out there right now.”
Despite having an ankle injury El Sherbini’s straight-game victory over World No.1 Nouran Gohar in Sunday’s Cairo final was of a comprehensive nature and it was interesting to hear, if she were advising the World Champion’s rivals, where Irving’s focus would position where their improvements must come over the off season.
Nour El Sherbini
“If I were to pinpoint what Sherbini’s rivals will need to do in the off season then firstly they have got to train to a physicality that will allow them to mentally stay focussed and enforce their game for the duration,” the Australian said.
“Then two they really need to close down the court consistently. I notice that a lot of the players don’t play the court well and get their angles effectively. For example if they hit a length, is it really length they are hitting? Is it really penetrating?
“When they play a boast does it really bite and hurt their opponent and give them opportunities? With a 17-inch tin, a boast is a tremendous shot against women moving to the front of the court and if you play that right you will get a lot from that.
“Also, not giving Nour time on the ’T’ and keeping her behind you is very important but it is a big ask and you would have to be very disciplined in that play and off course the tin is lower so you have more opportunities to go for it and if you miss that first opportunity you are stuffed.
“So it is about taking that first opportunity, having an excellent focus and being physically capable and taking your opportunities when they present themselves and not giving these up and just putting the ball back into play.”
Despite her World No.1 status. Sunday’s defeat will have been a bitter pill for Nouran Gohar to swallow and comes after she has lost this season’s World Championship final to El Sherbini and both the British Open and El Gouna International finals to Hania El Hammamy.
Irving has no doubts where the improvements must come over the next two months for Gohar:
“If you are talking Gohar then when someone is just a little bit one dimensional then there is so much room for improvement and that for Gohar could be interesting,” she explained.
“She is excellent at hitting straight lines and playing with pace but a change of pace and better use of height would both be good additions to her play. With the others like Hania El Hammamy, if they can add that real discipline from the start of the rally and really understand the patterns they are using then it could be really exciting.”
Currently on sabbatical from coaching, Irving is herself involved in an exciting new squash tech project as she revealed: “It’s called Squash Lab Communities and it’s an app with plenty of squash learning content for squash in a progressive way from absolute beginner to international level player.
“I have developed it because there is absolutely nothing on the market for the average player with any real substance as it is all top-end or development. The question is: ‘Who is looking after the 95% of the rest of the playing community and helping them progress and have really good resources at their disposal?’
“We have it for squash in Australia at the moment and it is endorsed by Squash Australia and all members get the app as part of their membership. It is filmed in a deliberate way to speak simple language to the user and very focussed on the content and is very progressive in its learning. Once you do one module like a six-week span and you have finished that, and it’s all achievable goals, then you go on to the next course and help them on their journey.
“We will also be joining forces with Alan Thatcher at World Squash Day and this will be an opportunity for people to download the app, get on board and support World Squash Day and we are pretty excited about that.
“So the user will have an interesting experience that is only going to get better and it is a passion project that I am very excited about it and the opportunity it will give to players to get on board and make the most of some great content and resources.”