David Nalbandian and Roger Federer have fought each other long and hard on tennis courts around the world since their days on the junior circuit, with Nalbandian usually winning those early contests.
The Argentine’s game, when he plays it at his best, makes him almost unbeatable.
Early on in his career Nalbandian was a superior player to Federer, who often could not control his emotions, losing his way in a match. The wily Argentine recognized this fact and took full advantage.
Once they each turned pro, Nalbandian won their first five matches. It wasn’t until they met at the year-end 2003 Tennis Master’s Cup in Houston in round-robin play that Federer was finally able to defeat Nalbandian, 6-3, 6-0. Even so, Nalbandian finished 2003 in the top 10 for the first time in his career.
Even as Federer began his remarkable winning span from 2004 to 2007, Nalbandian continued to rise up periodically and remind the Swiss of his roots, taking him back to the days when Federer could be flummoxed by consistent play and tenacious returns.
Nalbandian loved to remind Federer that the Argentine could exert his will and still beat the World No. 1.
In 2005, when Federer was attempting to equal John McEnroe’s 1984 win-loss record, Nalbandian met him in the finals of the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and defeated Federer in one of the greatest finals ever at that event (6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6).
Federer won the first two sets in tiebreaks, but Nalbandian fought back, forcing a fifth set. The Argentine secured his win by outplaying Federer in the the final set tiebreak, forever ending Federer’s hope of equaling McEnroe’s 1984 win-loss record of 82-3 in one season—the Swiss ended the year at 81-4.
In 2007, Nalbandian scored back-to-back wins over Federer at ATP Masters Series events in Madrid and in Paris, which did not sit well with the Swiss maestro. On his way to victory, Nalbandian not only beat Federer but also defeated Rafael Nadal.
That especially pleased the Argentine and his fans.
Overall, Federer leads in their head-to-head, 10-8. The last time they played was in the final at Basel in 2008, which the Swiss won, playing an almost flawless match against his nemesis at Federer’s hometown tournament.
So it was that this week David Nalbandian, the man who often drove Roger Federer to distraction throughout his tennis career, returned to the world stage playing tennis at the Copa Telmex in Buenos Aires.
The Argentine won his first match in nine months, defeating Italian Potito Starace in straight sets over two days. The match, rained out in day one, finished Tuesday with Nalbandian winning by a 6-2, 7-6 score. He followed that up by defeating David Gimeno-Traver from Spain on Wednesday, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6. It proved to be a grueling match.
Nalbandian was scheduled to meet Albert Montanes of Spain in the quarterfinals but had to withdraw because of a leg injury, which will keep him out of action once again.
Nalbandian, now ranked No. 140 in the world, will continue battling to get back into playing shape after leaving the tour in May of 2009 for hip surgery.
The Argentine returned to participate briefly in exhibitions in December and subsequently suffered an abdominal injury during training, which slowed his rehabilitation and caused him to miss play altogether at the 2010 Australian Open. This week marked his official return to action.
Nalbandian traditionally competed in the South American Clay Court swing. He won the Copa Telmex in 2008. But the 28-year-old admitted that clay is not the best surface for his return because of its reliance on long rallies requiring sustained stamina.
In Buenos Aires, he was hoping for a couple of matches to test his endurance followed by action in Acapulco the following week to strengthen his ragged game before American hardcourts and the European clay court season get underway. His ultimate goal was to be ready to compete fully at the French Open.
Nalbandian’s true love in tennis is Davis Cup play, and he hoped to be able to play in the upcoming tie with Sweden, March 5 through March 7 in Stockholm. The Argentine has a 27-9 career Davis Cup record (17-4 in singles) in 16 ties. He promised to be on hand even if he must attend in a wheelchair—which now appears to be his only option.
Known as one of the cleanest ball-strikers in the game, Nalbandian uses his all-around game, and especially his powerful ground strokes, to keep his opponents pinned along the baseline, as he takes the ball early and hits it deep with disguised angles and deceptive net play.
He is intelligent and anticipates well. Moreover, his two-handed backhand down the line is almost without equal. His highest ranking was No. 3 in the world, which he reached in March of 2006.
The problem for Nalbandian has never been his prowess on the court, but, rather, his dedication to the sport. Often he appeared overweight and definitely out of shape, competing with what can best be described as passing interest.
He doesn’t look like a tennis player—but looks can be deceiving. Contributing to this overall portrait are the numerous injuries the Argentine has suffered throughout his career.
When Nalbandian emerged early in his career, his game was fairly well perfected. He won early and enjoyed success. Playing the game was easy for him, and he knew how to win. He never had to work as hard or practice as diligently as many on tour, which was a blessing early on but may prove to be a detriment at this late stage in his career.
While Federer had to fight his way through to learn how to win—how to control his emotions and redirect his demons—Nalbandian seemingly had mastered his doubts and won coming out of the gate.
Now at age 28, coming back from an extended leave and another injury, Nalbandian has his work cut out for him to make it back into the upper echelons of the men’s rankings. His ambition is to work his way back into the top 25, where he will be seeded at major tournaments.
Nalbandian was off to a great start in winning his first two matches in Buenos Aires, but his body was not ready for clay.
Time will tell whether we will see any more great matches featuring Federer and Nalbandian. It will take a real commitment and intense dedication for the Argentine to find his form again, especially against the world's No. 1.
Hopefully, for the good of the game, these two champions will live to fight many more incredible battles against each other on the tennis court, where the struggle is always as mental as it is physical...
[This article was originally published at Sports Then & Now]