Eight years ago, the tennis world watched in shock as a relatively unknown Argentine stormed to the Wimbledon final. He was stocky, gritty, and ornery, but there was something intriguing about his game, something that hinted at his vast potential. His return of serve was smooth and potent, and his backhand was fearsome. His future was bright, and certainly a Grand Slam title awaited him.
Fast-forward through a career littered with injuries, mental lapses, and missed opportunities, however, and we're left wondering whether David Pablo Nalbandian earn the infamous designation of being the greatest player of all time to finish his career without a Grand Slam title?
His results scream a resounding "Yes!"
Following his breakthrough performance at Wimbledon in 2002, Nalbandian built upon his success the next year, making it to the Montreal final (losing to Roddick), and then to the U.S. Open semifinals, dispatching former finalist Mark Philppoussis and some scrub named Roger Federer (for the second time in a Slam and third time overall that year) along the way.
In the semis, Nalbandian faced Roddick once again, and seemed to have turned the tables on the American. In what would become a recurring theme for the man from Córdoba, Nalbandian held a two-set lead and a match point in the third set tiebreak, but failed to convert; he lost his nerve and consequently the match, ensuring that Roddick would not go down as the Greatest to Never Win a Slam.
In 2003, Nalbandian reached his third Slam semifinal is as many years, and on as many surfaces, displaying his versatility. En route to the Roland Garros semis, the Argentine defeated Marat Safin and three-time champion Guga Kuerten, and entered his semifinal showdown against compatriot Gaston Gaudio as the heavy favorite.
Inexplicably, Nalbandian folded, losing in straight sets and cordially paving the way for Gaudio to become the worst Grand Slam champion of all time. The following year saw more of the same from Nalbandian, who made it deep into the Slams only to come up short against lesser competition, as was the case in his loss to Thomas Johansson in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
And then it happened.
Just when we were ready to label him a perennial disappointment and head case, the Argentine showcased just what he was capable of. After losing the first two sets in hotly contested tiebreaks to Federer in the 2005 Masters Cup final, the Nalbandian we had expected to see all along emerged. At times he seemed to wield a wand rather than a racket, creating incredible angles, deftly volleying, and painting the lines with his blistering ground strokes. He blitzed Federer in the third and fourth sets and ultimately won the biggest title of his career to date in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
Surely now he would realize his potential and go all the way at a Slam, right?
He rode the momentum of his victory into the next year, breezing into the Australian Open semis, completing his “semi Slam.” There, Nalbandian faced the then-obscure, pudgy, loveable Cypriot, Marcos Baghdatis. Despite leading two sets to love and being up 4-2 in the deciding set, the Argentine once again imploded, losing 6-4 in the fifth.
At Roland Garros, Nalbandian battled his way to the semifinals, winning the first set from Federer and breaking him early in the second. The usually stoic Swiss was so flustered by Nalbandian’s play that he demolished his racket in a rare display of anger. However, predictably, a Nalbandian victory was not to be, as he was forced to retire.
After the 2006 Roland Garros semis, Nalbandian struggled to put together any meaningful runs until the tail end of 2007. Out of nowhere, the Argentine went on a tear unlike any in his career—and unlike any in the career of any player not named Nadal or Federer, for that matter.
At the Madrid Masters, Nalbandian defeated Berdych, del Potro, Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer in succession, becoming just the third player ever to defeat the world’s top three in the same tournament. The next week, Nalbandian defeated Federer and Nadal again en route to his second consecutive Masters shield, becoming the first player ever to defeat the two in the same tournament twice, as well as the first man to defeat both in an ATP final.
Since then, his results have been middling at best, and have left us scratching our heads. He may not be in the twilight of his career just yet, but he’s at least in the late afternoon of it; while he may still be able to take out a big name or two in the Slams, it’s doubtful that he’ll go all the way. Whether it’s his love for other sports (he’s an avid car racer and once tanked a match to watch Argentina in the World Cup), his propensity for getting injured, or nerves, I can say with certainty that Nalbandian will finish his career without a Slam.
What he has accomplished, though, qualifies him as the GOATTHNWAS, or the Greatest of All Time to Have Never Won a Slam. Outside of the world’s current top three, he’s the only guy to reach the semis at all four Slams. In an era that features two men who could each be the GOAT, Nalbandian has held his own, having been known at different times as both Nadal’s and Federer’s kryptonite. His career-high ranking is No. 3, and in the deepest era of men’s tennis to date, he managed to finish in the top 10 for five consecutive years between 2003-2007. Throw in a Year-End Championship, and there you have it.
The only other players who I think come close to being the GOATTHNWAS are Miloslav Mecir and Todd Martin. I believe that Nalbandian is more of an all-court player than Martin, and also possesses a more complete repertoire of shots. I’m too young to have seen Mecir play, and while it’s true that the Czech had a more prolific career than Nalbandian has had, winning Olympic gold and reaching two Slam finals, I give the Argentine the edge for playing in the era of Nadal and Federer. Also, perhaps most importantly, Nalbandian was named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World by People en Español, which has to count for something.