Roger Federer waged war with David Nalbandian throughout his junior and professional tennis career. The Argentine prided himself on being the first to have “Federer’s number.”
These were days before Rafael Nadal supplanted the underachieving Nalbandian as Federer’s chief antagonizer—preying on the mind of the Swiss Maestro.
The great Nalbandian not only possessed a keen tennis mind but was renowned as one of the cleanest ball-strikers in the game. He understood that hitting the ball flat with power deep in the corners in order to rob the Swiss of time could bring the great man down if you could sustain the pace and continue to hit the lines. It was not an easy task, but it could be done.
Nalbandian enjoyed defeating Federer—the No. 1 player in the world—more than any other player on tour. What is more, he had the game to do it.
They have met 18 times in their long and storied careers. Federer has captured 10 wins while Nalbandian's seized eight victories.
Some of Nalbandian’s victories hurt more than others. There was the defeat at the Australian Open in the round of 16 in 2003, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, that sent Federer hustling back to Basel. Also, at the 2003 Cincinnati Masters, Nalbandian won narrowly in straight sets, 7-6, 7-6. In 2003, Federer was struggling to attain that elusive No. 1 ranking.
But the greatest “near-miss” Federer suffered at the hands of his oft-nemesis Nalbandian came at the 2005 Tennis Masters Cup final in Shanghai.
Denying Federer this final crown also denied him more entries into the record book—for which John McEnroe will forever be grateful.
Federer, aiming at securing his third consecutive Masters Series championship crown, remained perfect in his Red Group round-robin matches. He defeated Ivan Ljubicic, Guillermo Coria, and Nalbandian—an alternate for Andy Roddick, who was injured and could not participate in the year-ending tournament.
Federer defeated Nalbandian, but both proceeded to the semifinals because Nalbandian was the runner-up in the Red Group. Federer met the runner-up in the Gold Group, Gaston Gaudio, and defeated him in straight sets with a double-bagel, 6-0, 6-0.
Meanwhile, Nalbandian met the winner of the Gold Group, Nikolay Davydenko, defeating him in straight sets, 6-0, 7-5.
That meant Federer would once again face Nalbandian, this time in the final for the championship.
It was not exactly the match Federer hoped for coming back from an ankle injury, feeling just a little rusty and unsettled. But he had defeated Nalbandian days before, so Federer told himself he could secure one more victory.
This was to be a five-set final, and Federer hoped for an early escape. From the beginning, however, Federer sensed they were playing an entirely different match than the one Nalbandian produced in their round-robin encounter.
Federer was broken in the first game and fought hard to take the opening set to a tiebreak. He managed to find two aces after the tiebreak deadlocked, plus a lucky net cord bounce. He won the opening set tiebreak, 7-4.
The second set was equally as intense and unrelenting, leading to another tiebreak, which Federer won 13-11, but only after Nalbandian received a bad call up 5-3 that allowed Federer to dig in and outlast the Argentine.
Had this been a three-set match, as it is today, it would have been over. Federer would have won in straight sets—two tough and grinding sets—but Federer would have been crowned champion and would have walked away with all the regal accolades of the ceremony.
But in 2005, Federer had to win one more set out of the final three.
Federer was exhausted by his effort so far, but the Argentine was not going away even after finding himself in arrears at 0-2. In fact, he blew Federer off the court with a 6-2 victory in the third set.
Nalbandian could sense that Federer was losing strength and resolve, moving slower to the ball, his backhand failed to find its mark. This renewed the Argentine’s belief that he could win this tournament.
After going down 1-2 in the fourth set, Federer called for the trainer—something that almost never happened during a Federer match. The Swiss complained about his left thigh, and even after treatment, continued to struggle, finally losing the set by a 6-1 margin.
It was on to the fifth and deciding set.
Immediately, Federer fell behind 0-4. Finally, he won a game. It was 1-4. Most telling, Federer wasted two break opportunities at 2-4.
It looked grim for the Swiss Maestro. Time was running out.
Regardless of his calm and cool exterior, Federer remained a fierce competitor. It was not in him to lay down and die here despite the pain in his thigh and the ache in his ankle. Federer had won his last 24 finals, and Nalbandian was not going to steal away another moment of Swiss glory.
Miraculously, Federer broke Nalbandian and began to find the mark again. The Swiss clawed his way back to 4-4 and then broke Nalbandian in the 11th game.
The Swiss served for the set at 6-5.
The record-breaking crowd at Qi Zhong Stadium stirred to fever pitch. Federer stood serving for the match, 30-0 on his serve. His dream to end it there, however, came crashing down, as Nalbandian blasted a winner past him, breaking back and sending the match into a fifth-set tiebreaker.
The tiebreak seemed to infuse the Argentine with determination as he fired all-out from the baseline with Federer straining to keep up. When the Swiss No. 1 netted a backhand, he found himself down three match points.
Nalbandian converted on the first one as Federer dumped another backhand into the net. It was Federer’s 72nd error during this long, frustrating match.
As Federer slumped, Nalbandian dropped onto his back on the floor of the stadium, exhausted after playing four hours and 33 minutes. He had won—6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6.
For Federer, the season was still fantastic.
Nalbandian may have ended Federer's 35-match winning streak and his bid to equal John McEnroe's 21-year-old mark of 82-3 for the best winning percentage in a season in the Open era at 96.5 percent, but that doesn't undo all the victories that came before the disheartening loss.
The defeat by the Argentine was only Federer’s fourth loss in 2005 against 81 wins.
True, Federer had been bidding to become the first man since Ivan Lendl (1985-1987) to lift three straight year-end tournament trophies.
Federer had lost only one other match in his career while leading two sets to love. That setback came against Lleyton Hewitt in the Davis Cup semis in Melbourne in 2003.
On Nov. 20, 2005, David Nalbandian came back from two sets down to steal this match away from Roger Federer, who held the match on his racket and let it slip away—making it “almost” Federer’s greatest near-miss.
[Please read the others in our series of Near-Misses starting with the installment prior to this one by Claudia Celestial Girl on Venus Williams at the 2008 Open" target="_blank">Venus Williams at the 2008 Open].