The first entry in a new weekly feature, ‘Video of the Week‘.
The warm up drill on show in this video of Justine Henin is a quite ordinary exercise, one which is likely to be familiar to tennis players worldwide. What is extraordinary about this video is the sheer racket head speed, flawless technique and early timing of her groundstrokes. It is these talents which have allowed the diminutive Belgian to compete and at times dominate her taller, stronger adversaries, collecting seven Grand Slam titles in the process.
The drill begins with both players standing halfway up the court, on the service line. Henin is hitting light, topspin heavy groundstrokes, keeping the rally going and allowing both herself and her hitting partner to establish a hitting rhythm. As both players retreat and eventually come to the baseline, the rally develops into a hard hitting baseline exchange.
This is a hitting exercise where both players are hitting down the middle of the court, practising purely their ball striking ability. There is not a great athletic element to it, as both players are not trying to manoeuvre each other out of position. While Henin is a fine athlete, this video serves as a tribute to her talent and ability, specifically her backhand, which has been described as the best one-handed backhand in the history of the women’s game.
Henin’s groundstrokes have fairly short takebacks, which enables her to stand on top of the baseline and dominate exchanges, while her rapid racket head speed ensures that she does not suffer for lack of power on either forehand or backhand. From this short piece of footage it is clear how Henin has, despite her lack of stature, been able to dominate an era of the women’s game where the power game rules.
It is widely acknowledged that the ATP tour is dominated by an elite band of players. Since Roger Federer’s rise to dominance in 2004, 29 of 32 Grand Slam titles have been won by a group of just three players – Federer (15 Grand Slam titles since 2004), Rafael Nadal (10) and Novak Djokovic (4). A multitude of reasons have been put forth for this phenomenon: a growing homogenisation of playing surfaces which allows exceptional players to dominate across all Grand Slam events without making adjustments to the peculiarities of each surface; the emergence of a trio of players so good so as to preclude a sharing of the titles around the tour; and a lack of competition from the other top ranked players, of whom it is said either mentally failed to live up to expectations or were simply never good enough to compete with the above mentioned trio.
I wish to address the first reason (a lack of belief and/or desire) in respect to David Nalbandian, an outrageously talented Argentine who grew up dominating Roger Federer in the juniors. Among the ‘also-rans’ of the 2000s, it is Nalbandian who, along with Marat Safin, is most heavily criticised for having the ability to challenge the top players but never truly wanting it badly enough. In this article I suggest that the Nalbandian’s match against Rafael Nadal in March 2009 can be seen as a microcosm of his turbulent career.
The occasion was the Fourth Round of the Indian Wells Masters Series; the opponent, then World Number 1 Rafael Nadal, a man who Nalbandian had beaten twice, both times in straight sets. Nalbandian came out confidently and took the first set 6-3, before quickly racing to a 5-3 lead in the second set and serving for the match at 5-4. Five excruciatingly tense match points came and went for Nalbandian, before he was eventually broken and the set levelled at 5-5. The momentum had swung wildly in Nadal’s favour – Nalbandian’s confidence was destroyed by being one point away from victory on five separate occasions yet unable to close the match – and the Spaniard would go on to win the second set tiebreak comfortably and demolish Nalbandian 6-0 in the final set, for a score of 3-6, 7-6, 6-0.
For the casual tennis fan, the most obvious cause of the sudden turnaround in the second set was Nadal’s tenacity, fighting spirit and ability to summon the highest levels of concentration at the most crucial ventures. However, such a view of this match hardly accounts for the fact that the outcome was largely dependant on Nalbandian’s form, which ranged from outlandishly good to amateurishly bad – his inspired form in the first set and a half completely blowing away Nadal, who had nothing in his game which could disrupt the Argentine.
Until those fateful wasted match points, Nalbandian had thoroughly dictated proceedings. He maintained a commanding court position on top of the baseline, from where he was able to take the ball clean and early, using every inch and angle of the court to move his athletically superior opponent around. Every hallmark of a classic Nalbandian performance was thus far present; the faint drop shots, the early return of serve, the devastating backhand down the line and the clever use of angles to open up the court. The mixture of power, finesse and intelligent shot selection was simply a perfect antidote to Nadal’s gruelling, physical style – with Nalbandian staying on the front foot and never allowing his opponent to wrestle control of the rally, he ensured that it never became a physical contest.
Ultimately, Nadal saved the 5 match points through a combination of sheer determination and concentration. The Spaniard stared defeat in the face on five separate occasions, each time overcoming it with unwavering self belief and aggression. By contrast, Nalbandian had wasted 5 opportunities to close the match, and by the start of the third set had seemingly already accepted defeat.
By no means was this a turning point in Nalbandian’s career; instead, it represents the last hurrah of Nalbandian, when he was just about still able to compete with the world’s top players, in spite of his glaring physical weaknesses. It is this mental fragility and poor physical conditioning which has blighted his career and stopped him from achieving the grand slam titles which his talent has undoubtedly warranted.
Largely unknown to the casual tennis fan, Nalbandian reached a solitary grand slam final back in 2002, in which he capitulated 6-2 6-3 6-1 to the world number no.1 Lleyton Hewitt. Since then, he has won the end of year masters once, in 2006, and captured Paris and Madrid Masters Series in succession in 2007. He achieved a career high ranking of no.3 in 2006. More so than these victories, it is the gut wrenching defeats which for me, symbolise his career. It is a career littered with missed opportunities, the worst being: an Australian open semi final in 2006 lost from 2 sets to love up against Marcos Baghdatis; a French open semi final in which he was up a set and a break against Federer before retiring with injury; a 2003 US Open semi final loss to Andy Roddick after having a match point. Given better fitness and more belief, Nalbandian would have certainly pushed Federer hard in the French Open semi, and granted a bit of luck, probably would have won the Roddick and Baghdatis encounters.
Had Nalbandian possessed the indomitable spirit and concentration of a Lleyton Hewitt or the conditioning and stamina of a Michael Chang, there is no doubt in my mind he would be a multiple grand slam winner. However, tennis players are not made by compiling various characteristics and traits into one Franken-player. Fans of the above two players may well retort that were Chang or Hewitt a few inches taller, and with stronger serves, they may have collected a few more grand slams themselves. What makes Nalbandian’s case exceptional in my mind is that he possessed exceptional gifts of hand-eye coordination, flawless technique and sublime touch, all of which cannot be taught or drilled. Despite the lack of one major weapon, he had all the major tools to achieve great things in the sport but crucially lacking the mental intangibles. As it is, us Nalbandian fans will have to content ourselves with having been witness to some of the most sublime tennis seen in recent history – as well as some of the absolute worst!