David Nalbandian began the 2009 season in style, winning the Sydney title. Rafael Nadal began his 2009 campaign with a loss to Gael Monfils in Doha, but seemed invincible after winning his first hard-court Grand Slam in Melbourne. In mid-March, they met in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Well.
Before that match, the head-to-head record between them was 2-0, advantage Nalbandian. In fact, they only met twice in 2007, with Nalbandian demolishing Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in Madrid and 6-4, 6-0 in Paris, both hard-court Masters 1000 events.
Nadal once admitted that the Nalbandian backhand is his most feared shot. Indeed, anyone who witnessed his defeat to Nalbandian in the final of 2007 Paris Masters would agree. In that match, Nalbandian kept pounding backhand cross-court into Nadal forehand 'til Nadal was too tired to even lift his racket. Nalbandian is dubbed "the Rafa killer" for very good reasons:
1. While most players, including Roger Federer, try to shorten the points against Nadal, Nalbandian is not afraid of staying in the rally with him. Nalbandian's game is based on "shot construction", which makes long rallies his forte.
2. Nadal's forehand carries enormous power and spin, making it one of the most feared shots in today's game. But Nalbandian thrives at hitting high balls from both wings.
3. As a left-hander, Nadal often creates wide-angled shots that make right-handers very uncomfortable. But with probably the best double-handed backhand in today's game and his ability to take the ball very early, Nalbandian can either return with an even wider angle or hit a clean outside-in into the open court.
So it was not that surprising that Nalbandian raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first set, with Nadal in search of his rhythm and confidence.
Nadal started hitting more slices to keep the ball low. Four errors from Nalbandian in the fourth game allowed Nadal to find his foothold. Sure enough, Nadal created two break points in the next game and earned the break back when Nalbandian double faulted. After Nadal saved two break points on his own serve, the first set was leveled at 3-3.
To counter Nadal's slices, Nalbandian started rushing the net. A volley winner and a forehand winner earned Nalbandian two break points in the eighth game. Nadal was able to save both but could not return Nalbandian's backhand cross-court when faced with the third break point. Nalbandian then served out the first set to love.
The first set statistics is very telling, with Nadal winning only 36 percent of his first serve points and hitting two winners to Nalbandian's eight.
Before the second set, Nadal called in the trainer to check on his right foot, which was already taped. It did not seem to affect his play, though, as he held to love in the first game of the second set.
The first climax of the match came in the fourth game, with Nalbandian serving at 1-2. Struggling to put his first serves in, Nalbandian quickly found himself down 0-40. However, two Nadal errors and a Nalbandian backhand down-the-line winner brought the game back to deuce.
The game then proceeded in a seesaw fashion, with two more break points for Nadal and four game points for Nalbandian. Eventually, Nalbandian held for a 2-2 score.
Nadal was immediately made to pay the price for his missed opportunities in the very next game. Also finding himself down 0-40 on his own serve, Nadal was again able to save the first two, but not the third break point.
Despite his third double fault of the match, Nalbandian held in the sixth game for a 4-2 advantage.
Now a set and a break down, Nadal seemed extremely calm. He hammered down his first ace of the match in the seventh game and saved a break point to stay in contention. But Nalbandian countered with a love game to stay ahead 5-3.
Serving to stay in the match, Nadal focused more on his first serves. Down 0-30, Nadal forced two receiving errors from Nalbandian to get to 30-30. However, a forehand into the net brought up the first match point for Nalbandian, which was quickly saved by a rifling Nadal forehand winner.
Nalbandian then hit an unbelievable receiving winner to set up his second match point, but he returned the next serve from Nadal beyond the baseline.
A long rally at deuce ended with a Nadal backhand error out wide, giving Nalbandian the third match point. But a resilient Nadal was determined not to give in, and a ferocious forehand down-the-line forced an error from Nalbandian.
Another Nadal forehand into the net produced the fourth match point for Nalbandian, which he failed to convert yet again with his fourth receiving error of the game. A Nalbandian backhand error and a Nadal forehand winner then set the score at 5-4.
Serving for the match, Nalbandian showed signs of nerve with his fourth double fault of the match. Two forehand errors later, he was down 15-40. The next point was Nalbandian at his best, as he constructed the point beautifully and eventually forced an error from Nadal.
Two receiving errors from Nadal then handed Nalbandian his fifth match point. Nalbandian was able to put his first serve in, but a Nadal return just caught the outside of the baseline which caused Nalbandian to hesitate for a fraction of a second. That's all Nadal needed as he flicked a backhand down-the-line winner to bring the game back to deuce. After two more errors from Nalbandian, the second set was leveled at 5-5.
The momentum clearly shifted, as Nadal served to love to go up 6-5. But Nalbandian bravely saved a break point in the 12th game to force a tiebreak.
Nalbandian started again rushing the net. However he committed two volley errors, the only two points he lost at the net in the second set, and soon found himself down 0-4. The two players then traded errors till 3-6, with Nadal holding three set points.
As a last resort, Nalbandian tried serve-and-volley. Two volley winners erased two set points, but a receiving error finally gave Nadal the second set 7-6 (7-5).
Nadal then ripped through the final set 6-0. He would eventually go on to win the tournament, without dropping another set.
Both players suffered from injuries in the second half of the season. Nalbandian opted to undergo hip surgery in May and has been out of action since then. He has returned to court for practice however, and has confirmed his participation in next year's Heineken Open.
No more misses, near or not, please, David!
[ Please read the others in our Near-Misses series, starting with the article prior to this one by J.A. Allen on Roger Federer at the 2005 Masters Cup . ]