Federer—Nalbandian: What Is and What Could Have Been

Rob YorkSenior Writer IOctober 27, 2008

In the fourth round of the 2003 U.S. Open, the 22-year-old recently crowned Wimbledon champion Roger Federer faced his nemesis, 21-year-old David Nalbandian.

Though widely acknowledged as the greatest talent in men’s tennis, Federer was 0-4 at that point against Nalbandian, including a five-set loss to the Argentine at that year’s Australian Open.

Since Federer had recently put doubts about his ability to win majors aside, this match seemed a good indicator of if he was ready to overcome whatever difficulties Nalbandian seemed to pose for him.

Tuning into that match on CBS, one would be forgiven for have wondering who seemed to have the greater potential. After splitting the first two sets, Federer appeared unsure of the best strategy; Nalbandian was controlling the backcourt rallies and making his older rival pay for any less than perfect forays to the net.

After Nalbandian won the third set and broke to take the lead in the fourth, John McEnroe in the broadcast booth noted with surprise that he was now “dominating Federer.” Following his four-set victory, Nalbandian told the press that he couldn’t explain it; He just always played well against the Fed.

Though he fell in an epic five-set semifinal to eventual champion Andy Roddick, there seemed little doubt that Nalbandian had a bright future after that Open. There were doubts about Federer, however, as to whether he were ready to take the next step of reaching No. 1 and dominating the sport.

Certain players just seemed to have his number; Players like Nalbandian (0-5 by that point), Lleyton Hewitt (2-6, with an additional defeat to come in Davis Cup that fall), Andre Agassi (0-3) and Tim Henman (1-5, with an additional loss to come the following spring).

We all know what happened after that. At that fall’s Master’s Cup in Houston, Federer won a three-set match against Agassi, and suddenly it seemed a great weight was off his shoulders.

In his next match he punished Nalbandian, surrendering only three games, and by that Sunday he was hosting the Master’s Cup trophy, having administered a second, and much more punishing beating to Agassi.

Before they retired, Agassi and Henman would lose their last combined 14 matches against the Swiss, and to date Hewitt has lost the last 12. Federer now has won 13 Grand Slam titles and his streak of 237 consecutive weeks as No. 1 may never be broken.

While the Fed has been the model of consistency, the one sure thing about Nalbandian is that nothing is sure. He has been to the semifinals of all four majors, but has not been back to the finals of a Grand Slam since his breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2002. He was at least a consistent presence in second week of majors and in the top 10 until another fateful match with Federer in the semis of Roland Garros in 2006.

Nalbandian started strong, winning the first set. Federer then raised his game to win the second, before the Argentine withdrew due to an abdominal injury. He has since recovered from the injury, but not from the defeat. He has not been past the fourth round of a major since, and his presence in the top 10 has been anything but consistent.

After building up a 5-0 record against Federer, he is now 8-10 following Sunday’s result in Basel. One might emphasize the turnabout in Federer’s favor, but the fact remains that Nalbandian has won three matches against the Swiss maestro since he became No. 1, which is three more than fellow baseliners and future hall of famers Agassi and Hewitt have.

Watching the victories that Nalbandian has achieved against Federer—the 2005 Master’s Cup and last years Madrid and Paris events—one sees that the Argentine can push the Swiss in ways few other players can. Nalbandian returns Federer’s serve in a way no one else has been able to: not Hewitt, Agassi, Safin, or even Nadal, whose success against Federer has been due more to his speed and ability to win long rallies.

As he said in 2003, Nalbandian likes playing Federer; maybe because the Swiss’ shots fall in his strike zone, or maybe just because he likes the challenge. Since 2004, Federer has lost a total of five indoor matches in the fall season: one to Andy Murray this fall, one to Fernando Gonzalez last fall, and three against Nalbandian.

His defeats of Federer late in 2005 and 2007 made many wonder if the coming Australian Opens would be where he’d finally make good on his potential at a major. Instead, he blew a two-set lead against Marcos Baghdatis in 2006 semis and got manhandled by Juan Carlos Ferrero in the third round this year.

He is now 26, well past the age in which players usually win their first major. Though he’s always had a thicker physique than most tennis pros, looking at clips from his 2005 Master’s Cup victory and more recent pics indicate that his physique is heading in the wrong direction. This indicates that Nalbandian, unlike Federer, has little interest in making the most of his talent.

Five years since Federer turned the corner on his career, he met Nalbandian in the final in Basel. Federer won that title, his 57th, while his opponent was seeking his tenth.

The result will hardly stand out in either man’s career, but it shows how different things have turned out. One looks at Federer and marvels at what is; one thinks of Nalbandian and marvels at what could have been.

The above photo belongs to the AFP.