In news that wasn’t a surprise to most in the tennis world David Nalbandian announced his retirement from the tennis circus today.
This entry is a double tribute, one to a player whose tennis I thoroughly enjoyed when he was on the circuit and two since the sad passing away of RIP Stevethis year. Nalbandian was his favourite tennis player. Sadly, we will never read his thoughts on how he would sum up his career.
Nalle (yes it’s a Norwegian dimunitive0 first came to my notice in the juniors as he was ranked in the top 10. Look at the ranking list below, there are only 2 players still playing in Roger Federer and Lovro Zovko who parties like a world champion.
1998 ITF Top 10 Juniors
Yes, he had potential back then, though there are many players who do well in the juniors but can’t make the step up to the senior levels. 2001 was the year when Nalbandian started to come to grips with the professional tour starting the year at 242 and finished at 48.
He made his Grand Slam debut at the US Open making the 3rd round defeating Escude before losing to Kafelnikov. He was coming into form making the semis of both Umag and Sopot. After the US Open was the first time I got to see him was later that year in Palermo where he made his first final defeating Carlos Moya, Fernando Vicente, Albert Costa, Tommy Robredo before losing to an old favourite of mine Felix Mantilla. This is where I took notice of the huge talent that Nalbandian possessed.
Thankfully my first opportunity to see Nalbandian in the flesh came at the Australian Open 2002. Yes, it’s good to watch the players on TV or computer, but it’s something to see them training or in match play. Especially in Nalbandian’s case when you watch him courtside and how he constructed the points. It was like a chess master where he was planning four moves ahead and could see him construct the openings with brains, angle and court craft. He played well in losing to Wayne Ferreira, but the talent was obvious to see.
It was disappointing that Nalbandian never won a Grand Slam title during his career. Yes, he definitely had the ability to win one but is he the best ever not to win a Slam. My own personal view he is up there with Marcelo Rios, Miloslav Mecir, Alex Corretja and Tommy Haas, just depends on individual viewpoint.
With this GS career, it’s ironic that Wimbledon was the Slam where he made his final and in 2002 he wasn’t ready to win at this time. That was one of the strangest tournaments he made the final at the first time of asking and he didn’t play any matches on centre court until the final. His friend Lleyton Hewitt thumped him and these two had a mutual understanding during their career, there weren’t exactly warm feelings.
Two other major chances where he should have made Slam finals. 2003 US Open he was playing brilliant tennis, then a victim of scheduling which favoured hometown boy Andy Roddick and during the 3rd set tiebreaker some arse clown in the crowd calls “Out”. Nalbandian was pissed off with the call and lost it mentally and his chance to make a final against a tired Juan Carlos Ferrero.
At the 2006 Australian Open Nalle was once again up 2 sets to 0 in a Slam semi against Marcos Baghdatis. He was playing very well, then slightly dropped his level against an inspired Baghdatis. At the start of the 5th Nalbandian broke early, but wasn’t able to finish the job which was a constant failing in Nalbandian’s tennis career.
Timing is everything, got to take the opportunities when offer, a classic example of this is Gaston Gaudio. As much as I love Gaudio, but he knows, I know and most of the tennis fans know Nalbandian was a better overall player than him but Gaudio won the Slam.
As much as it hurt Nalbandian not winning a Grand Slam, the fact he was unable to win Davis Cup for Argentina stings even more. He and Hewitt may have very little in common but both are big supporters of Davis Cup and lifted their games when they played for their country.
Nalbandian defeating Hewitt on grass in Sydney
Argentina and Davis Cup failures will be written about in greater detail in my next entry. In the years from 2002-07 while there was an outstanding generation of players who are all retired now Gaston Gaudio, Guillermo Coria, Guillermo Cañas, Juan Ignacio Chela, Jose Acasuso, Mariano Zabaleta, Agustin Calleri with a squad like this. They couldn’t find a regular number 2 for Nalbandian on faster surfaces which was needed at the time.
Finally they had their chance to have a home final in 2008 but there was a toxic atmosphere in the team before their biggest moment which cost the team dearly. Nalbandian was pissed off that his home city wasn’t awarded the final when it had a bigger venue than Mar del Plata and he would have benefited financially as well. A divided team isn’t one that will be successful in the long run. Once that final was lost, the promenade of broken dreams became a highway.
Danced to his own tune
One thing that Steve and myself agreed on about Nalbandian which is the one thing we admired is that he danced to his own tune. He wasn’t particularly friendly to the tennis press, but with the standard of tennis press it’s very to understand this attitude.
He was a strong character, didn’t just spit out clichés and platitudes. If he was feeling good, then it’s obvious in the demeanour and his tennis, but when he was off then he was truly off. It’s the flaws in the human character that make us and in Nalbandian’s case what you see is what you get. Personally, it’s more authentic whether people like it or not and another character has left the scene.
Tennis was not the most important thing in Nalbandian’s life. There were the rally cars, the asados (Argentine barbecues), In the words of Nalbandian "There is often criticism towards you because of your approach to tennis: always professional but perhaps a bit too relaxed". "I live life. I think that helps but anyway, there are people who don't think so.."
One memory I have was the time he asked to play first at Wimbledon in 2006 against Verdasco. When he lost the first set, then he decided he wanted to end the match as quickly as possible since Argentina were playing in the World Cup on that day, well tennis wasn’t everything for him.
People loved Nalbandian’s thoughtful, artistic and clever tennis but he has had his issues with the press, some infamous incidents on the court with Kader Naouni refusing him a challenge at a vital moment in the John Isner match at the Aus Open. Of course there was linesmangate when he got defaulted.
Kader Naouni rips Nalbandian off
Linesman at Queens
Nalbandian toying with Nadal Madrid 2007
Nalbandian vs. Federer 2005 Shanghai TMC
Ivan Ljubicic “One of greatest talents,arguably one of the best ever that never won a Slam. Fantastic player, annoying opponent. Respect”. Sure Nalbandian could have done more fitness work, there were times when he was fit, others when it looked like he had too many empanadas, but the ability was always there. The fact Nalbandian had a lot of soft tissue injuries and generally not major injuries until he was right at the end of his career, he wasn’t doing the right base training.
When Nalbandian was on fire, the timing was sweet and especially on the backhand side he made the ball talk. As he and Federer came on tour at the same time when the court surfaces weren’t homogenised and they had to learn and adjust to different conditions. In the same old homogenised tennis surfaces these days, it’s something it should be lauded and remembered.
Now, Nalle can enjoy life in Unquillo with the family, watching River Plate play football, the rally races, asados, and other numerous interests he has in life. Sure, he didn’t win a Grand Slam when his talent deserved one. He danced to his own tune, did things the way he wanted and it’s only down to Nalbandian to reflect on whether he did himself justice as a tennis player.
This entry is dedicated to an outstanding player but also dedicated to an even more outstanding individual ShankTennis. I do hope this entry did justice to his favourite player.