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Steve Flink - Nalbandian the Giant Slayer

10/15/2007 8:23:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Anyone even remotely familiar with David Nalbandian knows that this man has been a largely unfulfilled player. As long ago as 2002, he was a surprise finalist at Wimbledon, losing in the championship match to Lleyton Hewitt, who was then the best player in the world. The following year, Nalbandian was only a single point away from a place in the U.S. Open final, falling in five sets against Andy Roddick in New York after reaching match point in the third set. Twice--- in 2004 and 2006-he made it to the penultimate round at Roland Garros. Once, in 2006, he was a semifinalist at the Australian Open. That is some kind of record.

But there is more. At the end of 2005, he secured the most prestigious prize of his career when he took the Tennis Masters Cup crown in Shanghai by ousting Roger Federer in a fifth set tie-break. On top of that, the 25-year-old from Argentina concluded the past four years among the top ten ranked players in the world, spending a good while at No. 3 on the planet in 2006. Irrefutably, the numbers demonstrate that Nalbandian is a front line player. But seldom has he done himself justice, and for nearly all of 2007 he had fallen into a prolonged slump, slipping as low as No. 26 in the world. His stock seemed to be declining steadily, and many of us wondered if the slide might be permanent.

Now, after a stupendous week in Madrid, Nalbandian has set himself up for what could well be the finest year of his career in 2008. Sweeping through the field in Spain, a thoroughly revitalized Nalbandian defeated the three best players in the world for his first ever Masters Series title, and his first championship of any kind since he triumphed at Estoril on the clay in the spring of 2006. Nalbandian battled gamely from behind to oust both Arnaud Clement and Tomas Berdych indoors at Madrid, then took apart Juan Martin del Potro. From that juncture, Nalbandian almost defied belief, toppling world No. 2 Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-2, removing world No. 3 Novak Djokovic in a straight semifinal, and overcoming world No. 1 Roger Federer 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the championship match.

The victory over Federer was a very impressive piece of business. When Federer took that first set with consummate ease, the seeds seemed planted for the Swiss to conduct business as usual. As I watched this final unfold on Tennis Channel, my assumption was that Federer- a superb front runner who was 54-0 going into this match after winning the first set in 2007--- would close out the account in two convincing sets. Not only was he playing quite well, but Nalbandian was pressing off the forehand and giving every indication that he did not believe in himself or his chances. But then he put together two nearly impeccable sets, competing with quiet intensity and increasing conviction, outplaying a slightly listless Federer across the board.

In the second and third sets, Nalbandian did not lose his serve while breaking the game's greatest player three times. Federer had not lost a single service game all week heading into the final. At 4-2 in the second set, an unwavering Nalbandian saved two break points, and at 5-3 he held on calmly from 0-30. In the third set, he broke Federer in the third game, did not face a single break point, and then got the insurance break in the final game of the match. Nalbandian was better from the back of the court than Federer on this occasion. He dictated more than his share of baseline exchanges, stepping up the pace of his shots off both sides, and hurting Federer repeatedly with his scorching flat backhand crosscourt and his beautifully disguised two-hander down the line.

It was remarkable to see Nalbandian outdueling Federer from the baseline with just the right blend of power and patience. Federer was clearly caught off guard by Nalbandian's unerring and ultra aggressive ground game. But what might have startled Federer even more was how skillfully his opponent served. Nalbandian's first serve was so well placed and he moved it around so commandingly in both boxes that Federer was always hard pressed to respond with his customary authority. In the final analysis, Nalbandian won this match fair and square, refusing to allow Federer to establish his typical rhythm. Federer lost confidence off the forehand, over-hitting too many balls off that side. And he missed some crucial slice backhands as Nalbandian peppered that side with much success. Nalbandian managed to rush Federer into numerous uncharacteristic mistakes.

So what does Madrid really mean in the overall scheme of things? For Federer, beaten for only the seventh time in 62 matches this year, the defeat will probably not be terribly deflating, but it is not insignificant either. It has been apparent all year that the Masters Series events are not as high on his priority list as they once were. His overriding goal is to keep collecting majors, and in 2007, for the third time in the last four seasons, he captured three of the four biggest tournaments in the game. His setback against Nalbandian indoors was his second loss in a Masters Series title match in 2007 on hard courts; he lost in August at Montreal against Djokovic outdoors. He also has fallen twice on hard courts in 2007 Masters Series events against Guillermo Canas, whom Federer dismissed ruthlessly 6-0, 6-3 in Madrid. My guess is that Federer is not unduly worried by losing matches like these, but the fact remains that he is more vulnerable now week in and week out than he was over his previous three annual campaigns.

As for Nalbandian, he has a chance now to raise his game to another platform. To be sure, there were extenuating circumstances surrounding the defeats of the three towering figures he dismantled last week. Nadal had come off an exhilarating yet exhausting victory over Andy Murray, and he was spent when he faced a top of the line Nalbandian. Nadal played abysmally in that contest. Djokovic, victorious in Vienna the previous week, was worn down and not in peak physical form against Nalbandian. And Federer, for whatever the reasons, was not at the top of his game.

The fact remains that Nalbandian methodically picked these men apart. And he kept his foot on the accelerator. Too frequently during his career, he has squandered opportunities by choking when the chips were down. This time around, he never surrendered to nerves. Now the test for the Argentine will be to show everyone that he can play at the same level and make it last across a fortnight at a Grand Slam event. In that setting, he will be tested more searchingly on a physical level. Players have often commented about the excess baggage on this man's waistline.

But the view here is that Nalbandian will return to the top ten in the world next year and make his presence known in the latter stages of the majors. Winning one of the Grand Slam events will still remain a tall order for Nalbandian, but he will be a threat to anyone in those fields. For a long time, David Nalbandian was his own worst enemy, but perhaps after his exploits in Madrid he will make amends and finally realize his full potential.

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