David Nalbandian once again showed his immense talent and gifted touch in his three set thriller against the current world No. 1, Rafael Nadal, in the round of 16 at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells last week.
This was Nalbandian’s first loss, and first loss of sets, to Nadal in all their meetings, their most recent being in the 2007 BNP Paribas Masters Paris Finals, ending in an emphatic 6-4, 6-0 win for Nalbandian.
But, yet again, this recent match ended in a big-match defeat for Nalbandian, a trend that has carried throughout his professional tennis career.
Nalbandian, when his game and mind is in good order, performs excellently on all surfaces —grass, clay and hard courts. A former Wimbledon finalist, he lost to Hewitt in one of the most lopsided finals ever’ in the 2002 Championships, suggesting his unfortunate incapacity to perform on a grand stage.
Following this, he disappeared from the upper echelons of the tennis stratosphere, only to shockingly reemerge and display his talent in the 2005 Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, playing stunning tennis in the final against an injured Roger Federer.
Nalbandian, ultimately winning 6-7, 6-7, 6-2 6-1 7-6, was heaped with praise and then expectation for similar results and upsets the following year. Nevertheless, this did not occur.
In fact, Federer, one of the tennis greats, used to struggle with Nalbandian and his skills, illustrating just how powerful a fully operational Nalbandian could be.
Nalbandian won the Junior US Open title against Federer in 1998 and in the period 2002-2004, when Federer was striving to reach the peak of the professional game, Nalbandian won their first five consecutive meetings comfortably.
Their matches have always been, and perhaps will continue to be, epic—but, of course, only when Nalbandian gets into an attacking frame of mind.
His excellent passion and skill was further demonstrated, more recently, in his blistering end of season run of results in 2007; in the Masters Series tournament in Madrid he beat Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and then Roger Federer consecutively in a run to the title—he was only third player since 1994 to beat the Top 3 players in same tournament.
The following week, he once again got the better of Nadal and Federer, again winning a coveted Masters trophy.
He became the first player to defeat No. 1 Federer and No. 2 Nadal twice in a tournament en route to his two titles and first player to beat both in an ATP final, dropping only one set (to Federer) in the Paris tournament.
This late surge enabled him to climb from number 25 in the world to finish in the top 10, at number 9; nevertheless he just missed out on a place at the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup. There is no doubt that the other participants may have been relieved over this outcome!
So what is it about Nalbandian’s game that hurts the top players so frequently and so deeply?
Taking the ball early, on the rise, combined with a lethal flat, hard, fast shot proves difficult to counteract by even the quickest, most agile movers on the tour.
His clean strike and accurate placement of the ball, combined with his double handed backhand (notably producing winners down the line) make his groundstrokes powerful and effective from all corners of the court.
Even Nadal finds this combination tricky to overcome; the recent Indian Wells display was a case in point. Nadal looked practically sluggish, off-balance and wholeheartedly confused as to how to win a single point against Nalbandian during the majority of the match.
It appears that a change in coach and team are the catalysts for Nalbandian’s upsurges in success. Before his 2007 wins, he hired a new coach, Martin Jaite, to give him a refreshed outlook on his tennis game.
Equally, before his run to the quarterfinals and match-up with Nadal at Indian Wells, he joined with former ATP professional from Argentina, Luis Lobo, and fitness trainer Mariano Seara.
There is also a question of Nalbandian’s dedication to tennis. He is extremely passionate about rally driving and even partnered the professional driver Marcos Ligato and created the Tango Rally Team, which competed at the Rally World Championships in Andalgala, in northeast Argentina, in 2007.
He was not expected to get into a car, but he drove a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX and lost a knockout round against fellow Argentine and would-be champion Alejandro Cancio, who defeated Ligato in the finals.
Clearly there is a conflict in interest for Nalbandian, who needs to decide where to fully dedicate his energy.
So, when shall we see Nalbandian resurface in the latter stages of a tennis tournament again? Perhaps when he’s recovered from this loss, hired yet another Argentinean coach and has finished with another dose of rallying and general miscellany—or perhaps next week in Miami.
One thing is for sure—we’re all looking forward to the result of that tournament, when it comes.
(Published on Bleacher Report; March 22nd 2009)