In 1910, Ralph Cyril Fulford Nichols was born in London, England. He was the son of a plumber and the youngest of 4 children. Nichols played football and cricket as a child and was said to have picked up his first badminton racket at the tender age of 8. However, he first became a tennis champion as a teenager. Nichols' most notable feat was advancing to the semi-finals at the 2,000-entry strong 1926 Evening News Competition. In partnership with R. J. Ritchie, he then won the Middlesex Junior Championships in 1927. He also participated at Wimbledon in men's doubles after the Second World War and reached the second round.
Ralph Nichols made his mark in badminton only after having success on a tennis court. In 1927, Nichols began to play more badminton after joining the Alexandra Palace Club with his brother, Leslie. Nichols’ family later stated that he received no formal training nor coaching and that his skills were mainly self-taught. At a time when badminton was mostly an amateur sport, many a player deemed natural talent to be sufficient and Nichols was no different. The English athlete was known to remark that “coaching is detrimental to playing ability."
Nichol’s wife, Elisabeth O’Beirne, described how the game of badminton was organised in the days when she and her husband competed with the following words: “It was all strictly amateur. You left your job early on Friday evening, travelled to the venue, played Friday and Saturday night and travelled back Sunday.”
Her husband nevertheless took the game seriously and won his first badminton title at the 1930 Berkshire Badminton Singles. It was at this tournament that Nichols beat the famous Frank Devlin in the final round. In that same year, English team captain, Sir George Thomas, picked him to represent England on a tour of Canada. He was the only member of his team to beat the Canadian 'Great' Jack Purcell.
As for many greats of his era, success was measured by the number of winning runs at the All England Championships. He triumphed at this prestigious event 9 times, 5 of which in men's singles from 1932 to 1938. His last victory in 1938 was his third consecutive title and the last time an Englishman won the event in men's singles. After his victory, Ralph Nichols received a tribute cake from Lyons Cornerhouse to commemorate him as the sports personality of the week.
His popularity as an athlete was confirmed when he was featured on the 1936 series of sports cards issued by Ogden’s, a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain. The card stated that he belonged to a “school which employs delicacy of strokes allied to tactics. Drop shots from the back of the court and quick recoveries are the main features of his game."
To add to his success in singles, he also won 3 consecutive doubles titles from 1936 to 1938 with his brother, Leslie, and 1 title in 1939 in the mixed doubles event with Bessie Staples, right before the All England went on hiatus due to the Second World War. At that time, the winners of the All England earned a £5 voucher to be spent at the local Army and Navy Store.
Ironically, the English athlete was sent to Kenya during the war as a member of the Royal Army Pay Corps, which was mainly reserved for men of lower health. Nichols was selected for this company due to poor eyesight. Nichols had to wear glasses to be able to play badminton and was known to wipe them off between rallies due to fogging. He spent 2 years in Africa before going back to England in 1946.
He would have without any doubt won many national titles had the first English national championships not been held as late as 1964. Unfortunately, the Second World War disrupted international competition such as the All England Championships. This assuredly prevented the Englishman from adding many more titles to his already impressive array of achievements.
His total lack of play during the war and his advancing age were obstacles that he had to overcome on his way back to the top. Nevertheless, the following year heralded his return to success with wins at the Irish and Scottish Opens.
Nichol’s play was defined by former badminton veteran, Pat Davis, as being nothing less than a mix of “supple-wristed backhand, deceptive drops, effortless stride, stonewall defence, subtle placements using every inch of court, a scientific acuteness in reading the game and finesse."
Nichol’s wife and mixed doubles partner, Elisabeth O’Beirne, corroborates Davis’ analysis: “He wasn’t a hard hitter. He had terrific finesse, all touch and wrist. He had a smash and used it when he had to, but he didn’t often have to. He just kept plugging at the back. He was very accurate.”
Ralph Nichol’s badminton longevity was a rarity to be admired as he had international success in a career spanning over 3 decades. Despite announcing his retirement in 1947, he returned to play and his last recorded titles were at the 1954 French Open in both men's and mixed doubles when he was well into his forties.
Nichols played doubles for England at his only appearance in the very first edition of the Thomas Cup held in 1948-1949.
In 1951, he met his future wife, Elisabeth O’Beirne. They paired up to play at the All England on 2 occasions. They won the 1954 French Open and then got married during the same year.
Off court, he was a successful insurance inspector in London. After 40 years of service, he retired comfortably in 1968.
Ralph Nichols passed away in 2001. He remains the last Englishman to have won the All England in men's singles. With his 5 titles, only Erland Kops and Rudy Hartono have surpassed him.
1997 – IBF Hall of Fame
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
All England 1999 Official Programme
All England 2010 Official Programme
Badminton Association of England Annual Handbook (1967-1968 Edition)
Champions of 1936 – A Series of 50 (Card issued by Ogden’s, a Branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain)
Encyclopaedia of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Guinness Book of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Histoire du badminton (Jean-Yves Guillain)
International Badminton Federation Handbook (1966 Edition)
Townsville Daily Bulletin
World Badminton Magazine
-- By Yves Lacroix