The tennis gods can’t seem to make up their minds about Argentina.
They have handed that vast nation plentiful golden gifts in the shape of some fine and multifaceted players, but have then blighted those players with a frost of injuries.
Those same deities have taken the Argentine men to the very brink of national glory in the Davis Cup—no fewer than three times—but on each occasion have moulded an opponent of such depth and strength that the South American heroes failed at the final hurdle.
Take 1981: The USA threw John McEnroe at Argentina three times, and three times he won.
Take 2006: This time, it was a Russia represented by Nikolay Davydenko and Marat Safin, and the heroics of David Nalbandian in winning both his singles rubbers was not enough.
Then there was 2008. The might of the Spanish Armada battered Argentina in all but one rubber—one man, Nalbandian, again doing his stuff.
Now for 2010. The first tie was won in the final rubber by Nalbandian. The second tie was also won in the final rubber by Nalbandian. Suddenly, as reward, the tennis gods cast a little good fortune in Argentina’s direction, and Spain—strong favorites to win the Cup again—fell to France.
The task facing Argentina in the semi-finals is still daunting. The French, at the last time of counting, had six men in the top 40. Argentina has three in the top 50. But those raw stats do not tell the whole story.
The top Argentine, Juan Martin Del Potro, has been out of tennis with injury all year. It has therefore been the man who only recently made it back from surgery of his own, and does not even appear in the world’s top 100, who has spearheaded his country to that semi-final face-off: Nalbandian.
For there is a special “something” about Nalbandian that brings a smile to the face and a lift to the spirits whenever he is involved. It’s one part personal charisma, one part patriotic fervour, and yet another part outrageous talent that has never quite been marshaled to its optimum potential.
The promise was there early in his junior record at the U.S and French Opens. Two years after turning pro, he was a finalist at Wimbledon, went on to reach the semis of the other three Slams, and made the quarters of five more. He also won the World Tour Finals in 2005, beating Roger Federer.
Indeed, Nalbandian is that rare man who has beaten Federer and Rafael Nadal in the finals of two consecutive Masters: Madrid and Paris in 2007.
Last year, while struggling with injury, he almost beat Nadal again at Indian Wells, eventually losing his first match, and his first set, to the Spaniard. This year, in only his eighth match in 12 months, he almost did it again at Miami.
And that ability to dismantle the games that others find impenetrable is what makes Nalbandian’s tennis so fascinating: another part in the Argentine’s magical mix.
His tight, compact action looks deceptively easy, the result of great technique and rhythm. He is remarkably light on his feet, and that helps him launch into his ball-strike with perfect balance on every delivery.
His signature play is the wide drive that swings, low and spinning, out of court on both wings. He is able to take high balls on the backhand and forehand side and return them with acute angles and low trajectories.
What’s more, he uses these skills with great tactical intelligence. He adopts the simple formula of hitting the ball from one baseline corner to the other, sometimes finishing with a short diagonal sweep, sometimes following in to pick off a floating return with a volley.
These all-court tactics punish even the fittest of opponents who, as a result, struggle to maintain their own aggressive shot-making.
The problem is, Nalbandian’s style may look easy, but it does not deliver many easy points. For a man of under six feet in height, he can produce surprisingly expansive, swinging serves from an exceptionally high ball toss, but these do not yield significant numbers of outright winners.
And while his varied and accomplished game provides the spectator with beautifully executed rallies akin to athletic chess, it can be demanding and energy-sapping.
Without the fitness levels of, say, Nadal, it is tough to maintain this creative and attacking style over a long match. In recent years in particular, a lack of fitness, compounded by injury, have brought frustrating inconsistency.
Eventually, after that near-defeat of Nadal in North America last year, Nalbandian succumbed to hip surgery and an enforced six-month break. He rejoined the ATP circuit in January this year, but was thwarted by strained abdominal muscles before he’d played a single competitive match.
It was not until February that he managed to complete a couple of matches in his home tournament before withdrawing in the third round.
A few weeks later, he played a single—but tie-winning—match in the Davis Cup. Another month on, and he almost beat Nadal.
A fortnight after that, he took the world Nos. 13 and 23 out of the Monte Carlo Masters. He did not play the French Open nor Wimbledon, but beat world Nos. 6 and 14 in the Davis Cup in July.
And this week, he’s back once more, contesting only his fifth tournament of the year, and reminding both fans and fellow players just what great tennis looks like.
Taking a wild card for the Washington 500, he won his first three matches for the loss of just nine games, and battled past Gilles Simon in a tough three-setter to reach the semi-finals.
It takes his win-loss record for the year to 15-3: not bad for a 28-year-old who missed most of the last 18 months with injury.
Just how match-fit he is remains to be seen. This is a gruelling, baking, blister-inducing phase of the tour, culminating in the rigors of the US Open. His personal focus might therefore be just beyond New York, on the semi-final of the Davis Cup in mid-September.
He said, in the aftermath of his hip surgery: “I still have plenty of time to play, and I keep my aim of retiring with a Grand Slam or a Davis Cup.”
It is the latter that seems to draw the best from Nalbandian, and this year, with a nod from the gods of fuzzy balls, his passion for and commitment to the event may have their best chance of success.
He will, though, be watching the progress of his compatriot Del Potro with more interest than most. The defending U.S. champion has been reticent in committing to a return date and it’s possible he won’t play at Flushing Meadows at all.
So the chances of Del Potro lending his weighty support to the Argentine cause in September look slim and it seems as though, yet again, it will fall to Nalbandian to stir the pot and weave his spell when the blue and white flags flutter in France.
In his way are “only” Simon, Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Julien Benneteau, Michael Llodra, and a couple more.
Time, it seems, for the tennis gods to shine another small beam of good fortune onto Nalbandian’s substantial shoulders. He’s earned it.