Does David Nalbandian Have The Key to Beating Rafa Nadal?

Marianne Bevis@@MarianneBevisSenior Writer IMarch 19, 2009

David Nalbandian is a player with such gifts that he should have strings of titles to his name. And he very nearly pulled off a brilliant victory in Indian Wells yesterday against the very best.

His last-16 match against Rafa Nadal exhibited the brilliance of the Argentine and what he can bring to the table against the top players in the sport. It also showed why he has, as yet, failed to make it all the way to the top of the rankings and the Grand Slams.

Here is a man who has won a respectable number of titles, several of them at Master’s level. He is one of the very few men to have beaten Roger Federer twice in succession. What’s more, he came into this match having never lost a set to Nadal.

For a man of under six foot in height, he can produce expansive, swinging serves delivered by an exceptionally high ball toss.

His tight, compact action looks deceptively easy, the result of perfect technique and rhythm. He is remarkably light on his feet, helping him achieve perfect balance on every delivery. He launches into his ball-strike with the lightest leg bounce, often poised on one foot.

His signature play is the wide drive that swings out of court on both sides, low and spinning. 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 extreme opposite corner, 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.

This is precisely what happened to Nadal for more than half the match.

For one-and-a-half sets, Nalbandian illustrated the sort of game that can beat the best in the world. He employed those swinging drives, those straight forward tactics.

The formula was right. The execution was perfect. He was a set and 4-2 up, had four match points on Nadal’s serve in the ninth game, as well as one on his own to close out the set. He had Nadal all but beaten.

But as is so often the case, Nalbandian clutched defeat from the jaws of success.

The problem is, his style may look easy, but it does not deliver many easy points. While it gives the spectator the pleasure of extended, beautifully executed rallies, like athletic chess, it is demanding and energy-sapping, and there is Nalbandian’s problem.

Without the fitness levels of, say, Nadal, it is tough to maintain over a long match. Sadly, Nalbandian is as renowned for his early exits from some tournaments as he is for reaching finals and beating top players in others.

Inexplicably, in this particular match, he began to play different tactics at the very point where he had the win in his hands. He began to send shots back to the same side of the court time and again, rather than swinging from side to side and following in to the net.

It was fatal. Once Nadal’s blood rises, he can win almost from sheer will, and he winkled out enough winners to win the second set. Not for the first time, Nalbandian faded quickly in the decider, questioning again his stamina for the long match.

And it really does seem to be fitness and conditioning that is the cause of his inconsistency. Though some have questioned his spirit, he has shown great temperament in gaining victories over the likes of Federer and Nadal, and he was genuinely inspiring in the Davis Cup last year.

But without the endurance and fitness of the other top men, he remains unlikely to succeed on the regular basis required to win, for example, a Grand Slam.

But those wins he has scored—and the one he nearly won yesterday—contain some very valuable pointers to others on how to beat the unbeatable.