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Steve Flink: Nalbandian Falls Short Again

5/26/2008 7:57:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When David Nalbandian captured consecutive Masters Series titles last fall indoors at Madrid and Paris, I thought he had turned a corner at last. In those two events, he accounted for the game's uppermost performers, and did so convincingly. In Madrid, he clipped the top three players in the world, ousting Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to take that championship. As if to remind everyone that his triumphs in Spain were not accidents, Nalbandian cut down Federer and Nadal again to secure the indoor crown in Paris. Seemingly, he was headed toward another level, ready to make his presence known among the elite, capable of beating anyone in the world on his best days.

But now, after suffering another crushing defeat on a big occasion, the enigmatic Nalbandian has me wondering why he can't set higher standards for himself, why he seldom does himself justice, and why he remains one of the game's most enigmatic competitors. He was seeded sixth at the French Open. Twice in the last four years- in 2004 and 2006--- Nalbandian had reached the penultimate round at Roland Garros. He presumably had his heart set this time around on earning a quarterfinal appointment against Nadal. Instead, he has gone out in the second round of the world's premier clay court event after squandering a two set to love lead over the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, a wildcard ranked No. 145 in the world.

Not only did Nalbandian waste that two set lead, but he went down 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 against someone he should have been able to finish off. It is never easy confronting a Frenchman on the red clay of Roland Garros. The crowds vociferously support their players, and they do so unabashedly. In some contests involving French competitors, the fans can make a significant difference, and undoubtedly they raised the spirits and fueled the emotions of Chardy.

Be that as it may, Nalbandian's collapse was also a product of his own ineptitude. He should have put the clamps down when he had the chance. He could have exploited the considerable advantage he had in experience to get the job done. He might have recorded a win if he had exhibited the tenacity and temerity he needed early in the last three sets, if he had not allowed Chardy to believe that he could really prevail in a contest of this magnitude on such an illustrious stage. But the 26-year-old Argentine failed to maintain control of the match, and allowed an inspired adversary to reverse a losing pattern. As is so often the case, Nalbandian can only blame himself for a failure that could have been avoided.

Back in January, not long after his rousing triumphs in Madrid and Paris, Nalbandian was apparently poised to do some damage on the hard courts at the Australian Open in the first major of the year. But the No. 10 seed suffered a 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 defeat at the hands of former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero. It seemed then that he had slipped into an old bad habit of gaining weight. Too often across his career, he has allowed himself to carry around excess pounds. But, whether or not that was the reason for his one-sided defeat against Ferrero, it was a dismal showing.

Now Nalbandian has let himself down again with his setback at Roland Garros. I hate to see him reverting to his old ways. This is, after all, a man who possesses one of the finest back court games in the world. His two-handed backhand is technically immaculate, and while his forehand is not quite as solid, it is a potent stroke. His first serve is under rated. For a long time, he has been a front line player. He finished 2002--- the year he reached his only major final at Wimbledon--- at No. 12 in the world. He had concluded the five years since always stationed among the top 10 in the sport.

That is a testament to his enduring stability as a player and competitor. He had not enjoyed a productive 2007 until he unexpectedly garnered those indoor crowns last autumn. At one stage last year, he fell to No. 26 in the world. But I was convinced when he won so commandingly in Madrid and Paris that he would take those successes and build on them, and establish himself as an authentic top five in the world candidate and a potential champion at a Grand Slam event.

Now I have serious doubts. The game's "Big Three" of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are all considerably more professional and driven than Nalbandian. All three are exemplary in their absolute commitment to winning, in their organized way of approaching and realizing their goals, and in their supreme distaste for losing. Nalbandian is simply not cut from that cloth. But I thought he had more pride. I believed he could reinvent himself as a champion. I hoped he was going to fulfill himself as a player and move beyond the very good into the realm of the great.

It is not too late for that to happen for David Nalbandian. But the feeling grows that he will never demand as much from himself as he should, and will too often settle for mediocrity. That is a shame not only for Nalbandian but for those of us who believe he could be so much better if only he cared just a little bit more.

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