David Nalbandian: a Career in One Match

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!



13 Comments on “David Nalbandian: a Career in One Match”

  1. Adam R says:

    Classic case of bottler!

    Nice Video; some outrageous shots. It reminds me of myself playing in my dreams!

  2. J says:

    If you’re going to single out this particular match then I think you should take into account the serious hip injury Nalbandian was playing with at the time (and had been for a year; seven weeks later, he’d undergo surgery). Back then, the longer he had to stay on court, the more likely he was to be in serious pain. Which added an extra level of pressure during moments like those five match points. And failing to convert them did destroy his confidence – because he knew he couldn’t possibly last another set. And he also knew the price he’d have to pay.

    But still, you’re right, calling this match exemplary. After all, the various injuries Nalbandian has suffered over the years have had a big impact on his career. Disrupting it time and time again. And it’s not just a recent phenomenon. Still, not all of it can simply be put down to poor conditioning or fitness (like his hip injury, hernia and previous problems with his wrist and back).

    I don’t think that Nalbandian has ever been in danger of not trusting his own abilities. Until recently, he always saw himself as capable of winning a Slam and if that has changed by now then I think he’s simply being realistic. The days of wins like at the Masters Cup 2005 and Madrid/Paris 2007 may be over. But he still has a shot at fulfilling his biggest dream of all, winning the Davis Cup. Another factor that has had an impact on his career, mainly because of him, putting it ahead of everything else, other tournaments, Slams and sometimes also his health. And yet, it is especially in Davis Cup that Nalbandian has shown time and again that he is able to win matches under extreme pressure.

    In terms of his results, he has always been highly unpredictable, mixing up brilliant performances with horrific ones. And this lack of consistency separates him from the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But because he used to be able to beat anyone on a good day and also because his game can look so very smooth and effortless it can be very tempting to see those wins, those matches as the norm. While putting down his bad losses to “not wanting it enough”. Well, I’d say – all of it is part of the package that is David Nalbandian.

    Two years ago, his career was on the verge of being over. He put up with the lengthy rehabilitation process after hip surgery and a further, double surgery in March – and he’s still around. If that’s not proof that he does care about tennis then I don’t know what is. The expectations are different now, they have to be at this final stage of his career. But he still has a chance of achieving what he has always wanted to achieve. And for my part, I’m simply going to enjoy the sight of him on court for as long as I still can.

    • tennisniche says:

      Hi Julia,

      Thanks for your reply. I admit I might have neglected to emphasize the effects of injury on Nalbandian’s career – although I did point out his loss to Federer at Roland Garros was caused by injury. Mostly I decided to focus on the tactical, mental and technical aspects of Nalbandian’s game simply for lack of space. But also I think that mulling over the consequences of injury (whether through lack of fitness or not) can be a never-ending discussion (see – Nadal’s injuries and Grand Slam retirements; Federer and mononucleosis).

      Lastly, I did not intend for this post to be an attack on David’s passion or commitment to the game – I think it is acknowledged that he has probably not put in the hours on the training court to the same degree as say, a Hewitt or Chang (other players affected by injury). But the main focus of this article was on his ‘mental intangibles’ which I feel have been his Achilles heel on the big stage (Davis Cup not withstanding). The Nadal match at Indian Wells is one example but I feel he certainly did not bring his A game to the Wimbledon final (excusable on one hand due to his inexperience in this type of situation), and he failed to close the deal against Roddick and Baghdatis (though I have acknowledged a stroke of lucky either way would have been instrumental in either occasion).

      Nevertheless, I hold out hope that David and the Argentine Davis Cup team can pull out a miracle against Spain, and that he can stay reasonably fit for 2012 so we have one last chance to marvel at the man’s ability.

      • J says:

        If you pick a match for your post that Nalbandian played with a severe injury then I think that this detail deserves to be mentioned. Also because it had a major impact on his “mental intagibles” that day. I don’t like “mulling over the consequences of injury”, either. But as a Nalbandian fan you’re not really left with much of a choice – simply because they’re a constant factor with his career and not just the reason he occasionally had to retire from a match (and usually, he doesn’t). After the US Open semi he was out for two months with an abdominal tear and an inflamed wrist. Would he have won that match without those problems? We’ll never know but it would’ve been easier for him, playing it.

        The point I’ve been trying to make is that the commanding performances and great upsets are just as much a part of Nalbandian as the poor matches and the meltdowns, regardless of how big the stage. Anything is possible in any given match – that’s the only rule there is. But that also includes winning the Masters Cup 2005 (not 2006) against Federer from two sets down and then a break down in the fifth. And his victory from a set and a double break down against Berdych, without which Madrid (and probably also Paris) 2007 would’ve never happened. Nalbandian doesn’t invariably lose his nerve on the big stage – just like he doesn’t invariably keep his nerve, away from it. And for my part, I found it much more difficult to accept all those baffling early-round losses against players he should’ve never lost to than those three defeats you’ve mentioned (especially Wimbledon; he had every right to be completely overexposed).

        The inconsistency is the only thing that’s consistent with Nalbandian. He says it’s because he has good days and bad days, days when he can ‘feel the ball’ and days when it doesn’t work. A lot of people in the English-speaking media, on forums etc say it’s because he doesn’t train enough. His coaches and other players say he trains just as much as everybody else (though he had to make adjustments to his fitness training after hip surgery). I think it’s part of who he is. And I’ve made my peace with it.

  3. […] Argentine hero David Nalbandian was the fortunate beneficiary of a Jarkko Niemenen abdominal injury which forced the Finn to […]

  4. […] of inopportune lapses of concentration combined with bad fortune, which could be said rather neatly symbolises his career. Firstly, Nalbandian squandered two break points with backhand unforced errors. Widely considered […]

  5. […] a colossal baseline match in which net approaches featured strictly as a means of mixing up play. David Nalbandian has shown in past meetings against Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal that there is a formula for coming […]

  6. Whenever Nalbandian has made a run late into a Major (SF, QF, etc), rarely (in fact never) has he gone through without having at least one 5-setter or two 4-setters -> he has never really had the chance to show himself in the late part of majors due to not being able to close out matches in the earlier rounds quickly enough!

    He is a great attacker; attacks from inside the baseline, hits on the rise, but when he is forced to defend, he has problems. This is contrast to someone like Federer, Nadal or Djokovic who attack/defend equally well. This balance has caused Nalbandian huge problems in his career.

    He is playing right now (against Tsonga) and he is smashing his racquet; double-faulting on break-points. Maturity hits some players because they want to learn. Nalbandian hasn’t and I don’t think will at this point in his career.

    I like the blog!

    • tennisniche says:

      Cheers! When you see Nalbandian playing such flawless tennis and taking down the top players, then the following week losing comfortably to players outside the top 30, it can be frustrating and very easy to try and attribute one big primary reason for his failings. I would contend that supposed lack of mobility only became a problem for Nalby later in his career, after he had undergone several surgeries. Looking at his matches from earlier in his career he had pretty good acceleration, of course aided heavily by his fantastic footwork. Of course you’re right that (later in his career especially) playing long, four or five setters in the early rounds of Grand Slams has caused him to burn out in the second week.

      Funnily enough he ended up winning that match against Tsonga! I will watch his match against Rafa but am not expecting a victory, even a set would be good. What are your thoughts?

      Great blog yourself, by the way!

  7. Nalbandian to me should have defeated Nadal in the match they played this week, just like how he should have defeated him 2 years ago (in Miami or was it here?). He can move Nadal around from inside the baseline, a caveat that Federer finds hard to do. He negates Nadal’s lefty serve to the righty’s backhand. (as your blog says in an older article) He has found a way to sneak into the net and beat Nadal, a player with superb passing shots.

    He lost the match with a poor volley and one poor game (at 5-5 in the second set)! Infuriating to watch, however… Nadal raised his game and perhaps Nalbandian playing poorer was a result of Nadal hitting deeper and moving inside the baseline.

    Volandri, a player known to shoot himself in the foot, caused Nalbandian trouble in South American clay a few weeks ago when he start ripping his backhand down the line. Nalbandian, at pressure moments, either cannot handle these aggressive returns due to having a) more pressure to return b) high amount of mental energy and fitness/stamina required. He cannot just move into the net and finish the points off due to the court speed.

    It is perhaps a back-handed compliment but if you could only watch highlights of Nalbandian’s matches and not the actual, full match (with the errors, double faults, etc), you would assume Nalbandian to be a multiple Slam winner. Consistency, fitness, energy, injuries, maturity and the balance on aggression/defense has let him down, just in my view.

    • tennisniche says:

      Hah, sad but true @ the last paragraph! But to be honest I think even if you watch certain matches of his when he’s inspired, you would see a Grand Slam winner. Just the damn injuries and mental fragility when it counts the most!

      I was intending to blog about the Nalbandian Nadal match but to be honest I was so devastated afterwards (still am) that I can’t bring myself to write about it! Anyway like you say it was pretty similar to this match, so I suppose I could just copy+paste and change the dates!

      Unfortunately I didn’t catch the Volandri match but what you say makes a lot of sense – he’s been vulnerable to Wawrinka in the past (another huge single hander), I think because Nalby loves to play the angles and open up the court, sometimes he forgets that there are these guys who love a challenge on the single hander! A gently caressed angled backhand is an invitation for Wawa, Pippo & co to really open up the shoulders and nail it.

      You can see how effective David’s game is against Nadal though – while Rafa has looked pretty drained of confidence against Djokovic in the past I think this is due more to Novak out-grinding and out-thinking him, whereas against Nalby he really looks lost and bereft of confidence I think because Nalby’s backhand is the best match up against Rafa’s forehand. He can nail it cross court, hit the angle or just as easily rip it up the line or hit a looping topspin shot up the Rafa BH. I truly believe it’s the best single hander of the past 10-15 years (yes, better than Safin’s!)

      I do think there’s some merit in the argument that Nadal raised his game rather than Nalby dropping his… BUT I think chronologically speaking the latter certainly occurred before the former (to me this suggests cause-effect, i.e Nadal didn’t have much chance when Nalby was free-flowing and confident, but as soon as Nalby dropped his level Rafa was excellent in taking advantage). That tentative backhand volley will be burnt into my memory forever!

  8. I think you meant to say double hander and I agree, Nalby’s backhand is top notch. Watching his victory over Nadal in Paris 2007, he hit it better back then than he does now, he certainly got more angle to it, naturally this was almost 5 years ago so he was younger, fresher and Nadal wasn’t as good.

    Is it better than Safin’s? I’d say so myself too but Safin’s backhand was very good.

    I’ve added your website to the links page on my website. Would you be interested in collaborating for an article for the future?

    • tennisniche says:

      Safin’s backhand maybe has the slight edge in power (he’s taller so has longer levers), but in terms of consistency, depth, angle and disguise I give it to Nalby. Add in the slice backhand to the discussion and it’s a convincing Nalbo superiority.

      Thanks, I’ve done the same for your blog. I would to love to hear your ideas on collaboration – give me an email on lukegilbey@hotmail.com =)

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