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Steve Flink: Two old pros add luster to first round

1/18/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

In these days of seeding 32 players in the men’s and women’s divisions at the major tournaments, the first couple of rounds at all four Grand Slam events are almost always devoid of the kind of intrigue we once had in the good old days. Think about it: one out of every four players in each of the fields is given the luxury of being seeded. That is too much protection for too many players. Those that earn their living playing the game of tennis as seeded competitors surely appreciate the way they are shielded from potentially dangerous opponents in the first two rounds, but the people that pay good money for their tickets are the ones being cheated. The worst thing that has happened to tennis in recent years was when the majors went from 16 to 32 seeds back in 2001 at Wimbledon.

That is not to say that the opening rounds are always uninteresting. A few nights ago, both Mardy Fish and Gael Monfils made stirring comebacks and recorded gritty first round triumphs. Fish—who had been beaten all 18 times in his career when he trailed two sets to love in major settings—altered that pattern when he toppled Victor Hanescu 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3. That was a gratifying victory for the No. 16 seed, who displayed his increasingly impressive competitive durability in the process of turning that match around. As for Monfils, the No. 12 seed from France rallied just as gamely, overcoming Thiemo De Bakker 6-7 (5), 2-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1. De Bakker served for the match at 5-3 in the third set but Monfils struck back forcefully. No. 18 seed Sam Querrey bowed in another suspenseful five set, first round encounter against Lukasz Kubot. And 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga recouped boldly from two sets down to stop Philipp Petzschner in five sets in another spirited first round match.

But the bottom line is that most learned tennis observers are almost always more than happy for the first two rounds to end; they believe the premier events begin in earnest when third round play commences, when seeds take on seeds. That is why I was so delighted that the draw this year put Lleyton Hewitt out there against David Nalbandian for a first round meeting. Once I saw that these two remarkable players would meet right off the bat, I looked forward to that collision. Here was an opening round match that had a special appeal for all of us who appreciate what it takes to stay at or near the top of the professional game for a long time. Consider this: Hewitt and Nalbandian clashed in the final of Wimbledon way back in 2002, with Hewitt collecting his second Grand Slam title in straight sets over his understandably nervous Argentine adversary.

Hewitt was at his zenith back then. He would finish 2002 at No. 1 in the world, the second year in a row that he resided in the penthouse of his sport. After a disappointing campaign in 2003 when he slipped to No. 17, Hewitt concluded 2004 at No. 3 and finished 2005 at No. 4. His career took a downward turn after that 2005 season. His 2006 season ended after he lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open as a knee injury kept him away from the game. That year he ended at No. 20. In 2008 he finished outside the top 25 (at No. 67) for the first time since his rookie professional year in 1998, and his streak of winning at least one ATP Tour title a year came to an end. He had hip surgery in August of that season and did not compete again after the Olympic Games in Beijing.

With typical pride and determination, Hewitt made some good strides in 2009, moving back to No. 22 in the world at the end of that season, winning the title in Houston. And then a year ago, Hewitt managed to snap a 15 match losing streak against Roger Federer when he ousted his old rival in the final of the Wimbledon warm up event at Halle, Germany. Otherwise, he did not fare that well, and he was still hurting from the pounding his body has endured for so long. His ranking slipped to No. 54 in the world. But he showed up with typical spirit and fortitude to play the Australian Open for a men’s record 15th year in a row.

As for Nalbandian, he has not achieved on the level of Hewitt, yet his record remains formidable. After reaching that final at Wimbledon in 2002 against Hewitt, he went to the semifinals of the 2003 U.S. Open, and had a match point against eventual champion Andy Roddick before losing in five sets. Nalbandian just missed finishing among the top ten in the world in 2002, but from 2003-2007 he spent five years in a row inside the top ten, rising to a career high of No. 3 during the 2006 season. In 2008, he was ranked No. 11 in the world, but, despite winning two tournaments the following year, he went down to No. 64. Despite some injury problems in 2010, he moved back to No. 27, and recently ascended to No. 21 after reaching the final of his 2011 season-opening event in Auckland, New Zealand. By then, the seedings had been made for the Australian Open, so Nalbandian was placed at No. 27.

Nalbandian has had his share of significant victories over the course of a distinguished career. His biggest moment came at the end of 2005 when he captured the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals in five sets over Federer in Shanghai. Moreover, he secured two World Tour Masters 1000 tournament wins in 2007, cutting down both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in both events indoors at Madrid and Paris. When he is healthy and confident, Nalbandian is awfully tough to stop. His ground game has always been of the highest quality, particularly his flat, penetrating and precise two-handed backhand—the signature stroke of Nalbandian.  

The Argentine should have won a major somewhere along the line—and possibly two or three—but while his game is bigger and better in many ways than Hewitt’s, the Australian’s heart has consistently been much larger, his will to win more apparent, his dedication to his craft unassailable.  Nalbandian is a vast under achiever, but one of the primary reasons why he has not equaled or surpassed Hewitt’s record comes down fundamentally to temperament, tenacity and temerity. Hewitt has always competed like a champion, ceaselessly looking for any possible opening to win, seldom getting down on himself. Nalbandian has been something of a defeatist at times, a player falling ever so slightly shy of greatness, a man who has talked himself into too many losses. Yet the fact remains that Nalbandian has endured, and he has come out on the right side of many contests that could have gone wrong because he knows how to persevere even when he gets in his own way.

In any event, there they were last night, a pair of admirable individuals, back at it again in Melbourne. Hewitt will be 30 on February 24th. Nalbandian turned 29 on the first day of this year. Neither man will be around that much longer in the upper echelons of the game, and that is why it was so enjoyable to see them performing so magnificently again at another major. The fans in Melbourne surely recognized they were in for a treat when these two men walked on the court to do battle, but no one could have fully envisioned what would transpire.

Hewitt got out of the blocks faster and more efficiently. His ball control, resourcefulness, and discipline carried him through an impressive first set. The highly charged Australian got the first break to go up 3-2, and broke again to seal the opening set 6-3. Hewitt was not giving away much of anything, while Nalbandian had not yet found his range. Hewitt had a big opening with Nalbandian serving at 0-1, 15-40 in the second set but he bungled a backhand return into the net and the Argentine held on. In the following game, Nalbandian drilled a deep two-hander crosscourt to provoke a mistake from Hewitt, and now he had the break and considerable momentum on his side. Nalbandian skillfully went about his business and held serve through the rest of that set, winning it 6-4 to make it one set all.

Hewitt, however, was not swayed. He played a terrific third set, coming back from 0-2 to win six of the last seven games. After he made it back to 2-2, he was virtually letter perfect, holding at love for 3-2 with his second ace of the fifth game, making a spectacular, acutely angled backhand crosscourt pass for 4-2, holding at love again for 5-2. Nalbandian was down 2-5, 15-40, double set point but he aggressively salvaged that game. Hewitt was not unnerved; at 5-3, 40-30, he released a gorgeous backhand drop volley winner. The Australian was ahead two sets to one, and seemed poised to press home his advantage and close out a largely high caliber account.

Early in the fourth, Hewitt went for the jugular. Nalbandian was stationed precariously at 0-2, 30-40, a point away from drifting two breaks behind. But his wide serve in the Ad Court—called out by the linesman but correctly challenged by Nalbandian—was not returnable. Nalbandian held on, but two games later he was back in another bind. At 1-3, the Argentine trailed 0-40. A break there would certainly have sealed the verdict for Hewitt, but Nalbandian’s survival instincts kicked in once more. He came in and punched a forehand volley down the line for a winner, then laced a forehand down the line impeccably for another outright winner. At 30-40, Hewitt faltered badly, netting a routine two-hander crosscourt. The Australian still earned a fourth break point, only to net another two-hander crosscourt that he should have been able to keep in play.

Nalbandian escaped as Hewitt missed twice more off his backhand side. The Argentine was back to 2-3, and then broke for 3-3. Nalbandian’s heavier ground strokes were now too much for a distressed Hewitt. The Argentine broke Hewitt again with an inside-out forehand winner to make it 5-3. At that stage, he had converted every one of his four break point opportunities, while the much less opportunistic Hewitt was only 5 for 24 in that important category. Nalbandian—having collected four games in a row-- served for that fourth set at 5-3. He charged to 30-0—two points from taking the set—but apprehensively netted a routine forehand and then double faulted. Hewitt would come back to break him. The two players stayed on serve from there to set up a crucial tie-break.

Nalbandian was outstanding in that sequence, taking the first six points by controlling the tempo almost entirely. He won the tie-break 7-1, underlining his supremacy with a sparkling backhand winner up the line. It was two sets all.

Nalbandian forged in front again in the fifth set. He broke for 2-1 and was striking the ball exceedingly well at this stage. At 5-4, Nalbandian served for the match and he connected with four out of five first serves. By no means did he play a bad game, but Hewitt struck gold. He started with a forehand volley winner for 0-15, and he added a forehand winner down the line for 15-30. Hewitt broke back audaciously at 15 to make it 5-5, but before he knew it the Australian was down 30-40 at 5-5. He aced Nalbandian out wide to save the break point and held on tenaciously for 6-5.

In the twelfth game, Nalbandian was twice down match point, but his response was nothing short of stupendous. On the first match point, he served-and-volleyed into the Ad Court. Hewitt made a nearly perfect, low backhand crosscourt return, but Nalbandian bent low to make an astounding backhand half volley drop shot winner, executing that arduous shot with almost casual ease. That play was a combination of good fortune and great courage. Moments later, Nalbandian faced his second match point, but he cast that one aside with a well crafted forehand volley winner crosscourt. Nalbandian held for 6-6, then had two break points in the next game. But an errant forehand return and a running forehand mistake were costly. Hewitt moved to 7-6.

He went no farther. Serving to stay in the match again at 6-7, Nalbandian held resolutely at 15 with a backhand approach volley winner struck crisply down the line. It was 7-7, and even the indefatigable Hewitt could stand no more. At 0-30, Nalbandian was on the run and stretched out when he sent a one-handed backhand slice pass up the line for a startling winner. At 0-40, Hewitt uncharacteristically gambled by going down the T on a second serve. He was way off the mark, double faulting to lose his serve at love. All though the fifth set, Nalbandian seemed to be cramping, but he managed to serve the match out at 30, finishing off this astounding four hour, 48 minute contest with a topspin lob winner off the forehand. Match to Nalbandian 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 9-7.

These two accomplished players gave us a sterling encounter, easily the best match of the opening round. Hewitt surely wasted some opportunities, and he could well have won comfortably in four sets. Yet Nalbandian was steadfast when his back was to the wall. He tightened up frequently when he had the lead, but was inspired and downright daring when he was behind. His combativeness was too much even for the ferociously determined Hewitt in the end.

But the outcome was not what mattered in the case of this riveting duel. There will not be many more opportunities like this for Hewitt as he nears the end of his Hall of Fame career, and Nalbandian is not likely to play at this level for much longer either. From my standpoint, this was a proud moment for two admirable men who happen to be past their primes. They played prime time tennis in their twilights, and there was nothing that any of us who watched it could do but simply sit back and celebrate one of those rare first round matches that will linger in our minds for a very long while.

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