Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The New Nalbandian

You knew someone had to bring it up. You just knew it was going to happen.

Oh, Roger Federer did it early in the week, a few more people joined in doing the same thing later on. And as Sunday signaled the end of the week (or the beginning of it), a myriad of tennis pundits and fans said it openly, bemusing, and confusingly.

What was the “it” they said? “How the hell is David Nalbandian where he’s at?”

That question can still be used again, for Nalbandian only rose back into the top 10 of the ATP Tour after completing a remarkable indoors Tennis Masters Series double, culminating it in an absolute dissection of Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-0 for the second consecutive time to win the BNP Paribas Masters. Ranked currently at number nine, Nalbandian played no where near that position, let alone his incongruous No.25 rankings before the Madrid Masters event.

“I never thought that I can win Madrid and Paris like the way I did,” said a jovial Argentine, who has without a doubt placed himself in the discussion as one of the favorites for January’s Australian Open title. All week I was playing great, and I don't know why the result was so easy."

It was easy because Nalbandian has somehow, in the last month or so, used an amalgamation of stronger mental toughness and vastly improved fitness to merge with his supreme God-given tennis gifts. Only few are out able to out style Federer, out defend and run Nadal ragged, and not look exasperated doing it. But only Nalbandian has done those near improbable feats for two straight tournaments (withstanding his tame loss to Stainslas Wawrinka in Basel in the middle, still showing his ability to play to down to lower opponents). And that’s what makes his ability and these two weeks in Madrid and Paris so special.

If tennis ever wanted to end the apathy it receives from most of the sports world (i.e. the United States) after the US Open ends, it has certainly gotten its wishes, both in a negative and positive sense. Thankfully for them, the latter was in full display in Nalbandian’s resurgence to peerless tennis. Drawn out by the sudden bombshells in the life of Martina Hingis, the continuous peculiar story of Nikolai Davydenko since the summer, and the overlooking of one spectacular year for Justine Henin, the Argentine breathed a refreshing and exciting prospect going next year. And that is, him finally winning a Grand Slam title.

Prior ‘til his amazing run in the Spanish capital over a fortnight ago, Nalbandian had been able to only stand up and thrive in the big moments twice in his disappointing career. It’s disappointing, because besides his 2005 Masters Cup win over Federer in the final after being down 2 sets, and his brilliance with the Davis Cup final last year for his country in putting them in a winning position (he destroyed Marat Safin and showed class once again against Nikolay Davydenko), Nalbandian has basically choked when the moment for glory has been in his reach.

Hopefully now with his amazing all court display and brilliant contemplation of shot, angles, and spins in the last few weeks, Nalbandian will finally complete consistently and win Grand Slams with the man he use to own in juniors and earlier in their careers, who owns the game of tennis now, in Mr. Federer.

And then maybe, we won’t have to ask ourselves this alarming question.

“Why the hell has David Nalbandian underachieved so greatly