For every professional tennis player there is an equal and an opposite player.
Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, with his stocky build, clay court proficiency and the massive amounts of spin he conjures through his groundstrokes, is in many ways the equal of a certain, much more famous Spaniard on the ATP Tour.
Ever since Almagro, now 23, beat Marat Safin and Gilles Simon en route to his first career title in Valencia, Spain in 2006 he has looked the part of a major threat on the dirt. Since then, he has added four more clay court titles, including one in Acapulco, Mexico back in February, where he topped Gael Monfils in the final.
Like Rafael Nadal, and many clay court aficionados of all nations, Almagro’s greatest strengths are his groundstrokes; after his February win in Mexico, Steve Tignor at Tennis.com said that it’s this Spaniard, not the more famous one, who may have the most rapid racket acceleration of any male player.
In 2007, after a round 1 RG defeat from Almagro, Justin Gimelstob wrote at SI.com that, “This guy must have really eaten his spinach when he was younger, because he absolutely crushed the ball.”
But though he may be Nadal’s equal in terms of shots, there are other aspects by which he suffers by comparison.
One is in terms of fitness: While both men are very stout in appearance, there are no doubts as to Nadal’s conditioning, while Mexican fans taunted Almagro by shouting “Al- gordo!” (which roughly translates into “Al-fatso” in English).
While Nadal has made tremendous strides in his results off of clay, Almagro remains a single-surface threat. While Nadal is one of the most well-liked and respected players on tour, the taunts of Mexican fans (and the fact that Safin refused to shake hands with Almagro after their 2006 Valencia match) indicate that his compatriot has some work to do with regards to congeniality.
And furthermore, while Nadal thrives on the game’s biggest stages, with a 28-0 record at Roland Garros, Almagro has so far disappointed at the one major where he can reasonably be expected to thrive.
After his first title in 2006, Almagro could have been expected to make a run at Roland Garros, but fell in round 2 to James Blake.
Yes, the same James Blake who had never before won two consecutive matches in Paris, and hasn’t done so since.
In 2007, after “crushing” Gimelstob, he lost in round 2 to hometown favorite Michael Llodra.
Yes, the same Michael Llodra who is a 6’3 doubles specialist.
Last year, he finally appeared to be making good on his promise, fighting his way to the quarters in Paris, where he met his equal and opposite, Nadal. A titanic clash of topspin and machismo was expected.
Instead, Nadal, who was in the midst of the most dominant performance of his career so far, allowed Almagro a mere three games. In his defense, though, compatriot Fernando Verdasco won the same amount in the previous round, and Roger Federer only one more game in the finals.
Almagro still probably seethes at the result, though, and has waited a whole year for another try. At 23, he ought to be of a ripened age, and primed for his best RG campaign yet.
This year, Almagro opened his Paris tournament with a first-round assignment against Argentine Agustin Calleri, another streaky, dangerous clay court player with a glorious one-handed backhand. The Spaniard surrendered only eight games, setting himself up for a second round encounter with rising Latvian star Ernests Gulbis.
If he overcomes Gulbis, his likely third-round opponent would be Verdasco, and Nicolay Davydenko looms in the round of 16. After that, he would probably face Nadal.
If Nadal falters (yeah, I know, HUGE if) Almagro would be just the kind of player to take advantage. No one would confuse him for a future hall-of-famer, but Almagro is frankly due for a run a la Albert Costa/Gaston Gaudio.
Nadal remains the favorite, but Almagro is my 2009 Roland Garros dark horse.