Match Report: Tomáš Berdych vs Nick Krygios – Australian Open 2016, Round 3

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Tomas Berdych: a tough match-up for the talented Australian

As the most high-profile youngster in tennis today, Nick Kyrgios is fairly practised in causing upsets -whether through defeating more established players, or generally causing upset with careless behaviour and ill-thought out remarks, the young Australian is accustomed to being the centre of attention. How disconcerting it must have been therefore to have the outcome of this Round 3 match-up totally taken out of his hands.

Some of Kyrgios’s best results to date have come from overwhelming his opponents with his dynamic power tennis. In his two Grand Slam quarter-final appearances, the Australian faced relatively defensive, steady players in previous rounds, defeating Seppi in the 2015 Australian Open and (more famously) Nadal at Wimbledon 2014. Seppi and Nadal proved rather accommodating opponents – neither serve particularly big and both are content to engage in long rallies, waiting for a short ball before attacking. Such an approach gives Kyrgios numerous opportunities to use his explosive power  off both wings. Even when manoeuvred out of position,  his athleticism enables him to hit highlight-reel winners from unlikely positions.

Against the number 6 seed Tomas Berdych, he faced an entirely different challenge. Whereas Kyrgios can simply over-power many of his opponents, Berdych is an expert at taking and maintaining the advantage in rallies. The Czech was actually out-served, hitting a mere 8 aces compared to Kyrgios’s 18, and making 6 double faults to the Australian’s 2. Furthermore, Kyrgios won an impressive 82% of points on his first serve, serving at 60% first serves in. This ensured that Kyrgios was winning a substantial number of free points and was often starting rallies on the front foot. This made it imperative that Berdych dominate the bulk of the neutral rallies on his and Kyrgios’ second serve.

Few players on the tour hit the ball so cleanly, and with as little topspin as Berdych, and therefore Kyrgios could be forgiven for struggling to adjust his game accordingly. While the Australian came back into the match, winning the third set, this was as much due to a lapse in concentration from Berdych, as it was credit to an improvement from Kyrgios. The latter has a habit of defending through a reliance on his athleticism – often hitting weak, mid-court slices, before retreating a few steps and using his speed and agility to retrieve whatever is thrown at him. Against a power-hitter like Berdych, such a strategy isn’t really viable. The Czech hit an enormous 25 winners off his forehand alone, evidence of his devastating potential to lead the play when given a chance.

Generally speaking, players have had success against Berdych by using the Czech’s power against him, and pushing him out wide. Once pushed outside the tramlines, Berdych does not have the malleability on either groundstroke to play a defensively savvy shot – rather than give himself time with a deep, looping topspin shot, he will invariably go for a hard, flat winner, with a relatively low probability of going in.

Nikolai Davydenko, himself never a Grand Slam finalist, had a dominant head to head record over Berdych, leading the series 9-2 (not including a retirement), going on a run of eight victories in a row over the Czech.  Despite being 6 inches shorter, and possessing of a far weaker serve, the Russian was able to outmanoeuvre his larger opponent. Using his superb reflexes and compact groundstrokes, he was able to stand right up on the baseline and re-direct Berdych’s powerful groundstrokes, stretching his opponent out-wide, into a position he doesn’t want to be.

While it remains to be seen if Kyrgios has the technique and hand-eye co-ordination to adopt such an approach, he certainly cannot remain so passive in rallies against opponents like Berdych.

Had Kyrgios drawn a different seed in his quarter – say David Ferrer or Rafael Nadal – he might well have progressed further in the tournament. Furthermore, with his talent and ability, he may well go on to achieve more than Berdych in his career. For the time being however, this remains a bad match-up for the pugnacious Aussie.

– TN


Match Report: Murray vs Tipsarevic

Some points on a fascinating contest in the Quarter Finals of the Miami Masters Series between Andy Murray and Janko Tipsarevic, two of the most consistent baseliners on tour.

Tipsarevic is typical of the modern baseline player, one who has no stand-out weapon but relies on great lateral movement (witness the Serb’s monster quads and calves), a strong two handed backhand and unerring consistency off both sides. Tipsarevic’s best asset is his serve – standing at 5’11 (180cm), he gets not only impressive pace (hitting upward of 130MPH on his first serve), but fantastic angles owing to the full extension he gets on the service action, especially on his serve out-wide from the Ad-court.

Murray is almost the perfect foil to the modern generic baseliner, possessesing a variety of ways in which he can approach each encounter. He is adept at playing the patient baseline game, yet with enough power to seize the initiative in a rally when he feels it’s falling from his control. Furthermore, against a dogged opponent like Tipsarevic who feeds off rhythm, he can turn to his coniserable array of ‘touch’ shots to disrupt his opponent. He can knife his backhand slice in either direction, or float it in the middle of the court to invite his opponent to the net. His drop shot is another effective tool – he perhaps over-uses it, but gets away with it due to his great composure and finesse on both passing shots and when drawn to the net himself.

Tipsarevic largely had the best of things in the first set, and he broke Murray at 4-4 to serve out the set 6-4. Murray cut a frustrated figure; he had been broken out of sheer impatience, and afterwards was seen complaining about his stomach. As he does so many times though, the Scot came back strongly in the second set,  cutting out his unforced errors and showing his gritty determination to out-last Tipsarevic.

If ruthless consistency and dogged consistency were the two base ingredients needed to compete with Tipsarevic on the slow courts of Miami, Murray then added his own flourishes to take the match above and beyond the level of Tipsarevic. In addition to the aforementioned touch shots, he was also hitting his forehand impressively, particularly when he chose to run around his backhand to hit it.  He unleashed on some huge inside-out forehands, and hit his inside-in forehand with surprising consistency. He dominated his opponent in forehand to forehand rallies and forced Tipsarevic to go for too much, too soon in the rally. Murray proceeded to take the second set fairly comfortably, 6-3.

Murray also yielded some great results from the drop shot. As stated, he has a tendency to abuse the drop shot, but against a strict baseliner like Tipsarevic, it can be an extremely effective tactic. The real difference in quality between the two players was illustrated at 1-1 in the third set, the game in which Murray took a crucial break of serve. Serving at game point 40-30, Tipsarevic elected to hit his first drop shot of the match – Murray got to the ball with enough time to caress a backhand slice up the line, covered the net with typical nous, anticipated Tipsarevic’s pass and put away a volley winner. A simple combination of shots, but executed with a composure and class which is just above Tipsarevic’s ability.

As the third set progressed, it became increasingly evident that Tipsarevic had no solution to Murray’s relentless barrage of power, guile and physicality. As a result he had resolved to become the master of his own fate, going for broke on his shots very early on in the rallies. While he succeeded with an aggressive approach in the first set, by this point he had neither the consistency nor the confidence to hit through Murray’s resolute defences.  He also made the decision to hit a very high percentage of first serves, a curious move considering his opponent is perhaps the best returner of first serves in the men’s game.  Ultimately Murray’s momentum was not to be stopped, and he triumphed 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

One area which Murray can still improve is his backhand down the line. For years he has been one of the best in the world at nailing his backhand down the line, causing havoc with his opponents rhythm by using it as a change of pace after a succession of slow, spinny shots. Curiously, he has started 2012 by improving his inside-out forehand but suffering an almost equal decline in his backhand down the line. If he can recall this world class shot, maintain a decent first serve percentage and keep a positive mental attitude, he has every chance of not only beating Nadal or Tsonga in the semi-finals, but winning his maiden Grand Slam in 2012.

– TN


Match Report: Isner vs Monaco, Indian Wells Round 3

A second round clash between the prototypical big server (Isner) and baseline scrapper (Monaco). This match was ultimately won in the mind, with Monaco becoming tight on crucial points and Isner taking advantage.

Monaco started the stronger of the two, earning break points in several of Isner’s service games early on in the first set. He failed to take any of them, and was punished by a late break of serve, handing Isner the first set 7-5. The native of North Carolina was becoming increasingly confident on Monaco’s serve, and created several break chances early in the second set, which he failed to take. He followed this up with a sloppy service game of his own at 2:3, going down 15-40. A second serve ace (a slice serve which landed plum on the side line), followed by a 141mph first serve quickly dismissed both break points, demonstrating what a devastating combination Isner has in his giant serve and steely fortitude. Having missed break point opportunities in both sets, Monaco was put to the test on his own service game at 5-6. The Argentine faced and saved three match points, the second one spectacularly so, hitting a drop volley off his shoe laces for a clean winner. Finally, Isner secured the match on his fourth match point, courtesy of a Monaco unforced error from the backhand.

Tennis is often a game of risk-management, and this match was no different. Players at the professional level know their own strengths and weaknesses inside out, and often know their opponent’s too. In this case, John Isner knew his weak mobility and backhand would be exposed in longer rallies, therefore his most viable strategy was to keep points as short as possible, unloading on the forehand whenever possible. His challenge was to take on enough forehands so that Monaco could not settle into his baseline game, but without totally compromising his consistency.

Monaco is naturally a more risk-averse player. At home on clay and slow hard courts, he plays an unremarkable brand of baseline tennis; a functional serve, great lateral mobility on the baseline, solid two handed backhand, and a forehand which he likes to hit inside-out. What he needed to avoid at all costs was anything played short and in the middle of the court which Isner could attack with his forehand. This led to him hitting a very high percentage of first serves (above 70%), the majority kicked to the Isner backhand. This generally elicited a weak, mid-court reply from Isner, which allowed Monaco to initiate his preferred pattern of play, hitting inside out forehands to a (relatively) weak right-handers backhand.

As in so many of his victories, Isner achieved a narrow victory through managing his risk better than his opponent. Starting in the second set, he became increasingly offensive on Monaco’s second serve, blasting several forehand winners off the Argentine’s delivery. He also threw in a few backhands down the line, some beautiful drop shots (among a couple of stinkers), and generally kept his opponent off-balance. Monaco can’t have too many complaints; he didn’t convert any of his break points, but mostly due to Isner’s timely and gargantuan serve. He will perhaps rue becoming tight at crucial moments on his own serve – when Isner was looking to pounce and unleash a forehand, Monaco failed to adapt accordingly. He kept on playing the same mono-pace game, didn’t take any risks and instead allowed Isner to take his own calculated risks.

– TN


‘The Mystery of the Missing Forehand’ – Match Report: Donald Young vs Juan Monaco @ ATP Paris Masters

Donald Young has endured a turbulent transition from junior to ATP level.

Match Report: Juan Monaco (ARG) def. Donald Young (USA) 6-4 6-2, 2011 ATP Paris BNP Paribas Masters First Round

The Mystery of the Missing Forehand

If this match report seems absurdly belated, pointlessly insignificant and generally irrelevant, TennisNiche rejoices: it is only through such devious methods that it is possible to convey the diabolical quality and minuscule importance of this encounter.

It is a rare and offensive sight to witness a Masters Series match in which a player  is struggling simply to keep his forehand in the court. Donald Young’s failings are made all the more repulsive when one considers the following circumstances:

  1. The player in question is not playing risky forehands, nor even hitting a particularly attacking shot. At no point was Young aiming for the lines on his forehand and by the end of the match it seemed the extent of his ambition was to keep the ball between the service line and the baseline, a challenge more suited to an amateur tennis team’s Sunday morning practice session.
  2. The opponent is a solid player who generally hits the ball with the same spin, trajectory and pace. Juan Monaco is far from a Fabrice Santoro style trickster, and there is no excuse that Young’s rhythm was disrupted by his opponent’s variety of shots.
  3. The match was played on a perfectly consistent, even-bouncing court surface – not a dishevelled gravel or concrete public court, complete with sagging net and miniature craters. Even so, Tennis Niche, filled with paternal sympathy for the promising young American whose career has thus far fallen tragically short of unrealistic expectations, wishes it could state that this match was played on a grass or clay court with all the problems of movement and uneven bounce associated with these surfaces. Alas, it was not so.

Now onto the contest itself:

As you may have guessed, the first ATP match between Donald Young and Juan Monaco was far from a high quality affair. While both were coming off solid performances in their previous tournaments, it was only Monaco who showed any real quality. He played a consistent match with few unforced errors, aided by the fact that his opponent was struggling to keep the ball in court with any kind of depth or pace.  Monaco took the match 6-4, 6-2, with Young noticeably frustrated and flagging in the second set.

There is not a great deal to comment about the performance of Monaco, who did not need to push himself beyond his normal level. The Argentine hit his groundstrokes consistently with decent depth, came forward well and showed good focus and concentration in closing out the match when his opponent was visibly melting down.

As for Young, he is back on the right track in his career, despite the poor performance. Having entered the top 100 for the first time in November 2007, he continued to flit in and out of the top 100 during 2008. His career seemed to backtrack somewhat in 2009 when he fell out of the top 100 entirely and continued his inconsistent results until mid 2011, when he finally entered the top 50 and began showing some consistency. Put in optimistic terms, this match represents a brief return of the old Donald Young.  He performed roughly to expectations at the 2012 Australian Open, reaching the round of 64 before being knocked out by Lukas Lacko. Looking ahead this year, Young must aim first to consolidate his position in the top 50; only then can he think about entering the top 32 and thus gaining a seeding for grand slam draws.

TN


Djokovic vs Nadal: Key Patterns of Play

With the Nadal-Djokovic final less than 24 hours away, this post will analyse the crucial patterns of play between these two baseline masters.

With Djokovic winning all six of their encounters in 2011, it is fairly safe to say that he has a successful gameplan against Rafa, one which he has put into practice numerous times and which he must have enormous confidence in.

Therefore, this post will focus more on what Nadal can do to counter Djokovic’s gameplan which so clearly has a stranglehold over him, much in the same way as Nadal has had a complete ownership of Roger Federer for so many years.

The Nadal Forehand Down-the-Line:

While Nadal has reigned as undisputed King of Clay for some years now, there have always been doubts over his hard court ability at the highest level when up against a real big hitter on the surface. Due to his long swing on the forehand, players will often target that side with deep, pacey shots, hoping that Nadal will cough up a short ball or an unforced error from that side.

Novak Djokovic is perhaps the player best equipped to pummel the Nadal forehand. Rafa is a lefty,which means that to attack his forehand the ball must be struck towards the left hand side of the court, more easily termed the Ad-court. Djokovic is right handed, therefore his cross-court backhand will go the Ad-court, as will his inside-out forehand. Djokovic hits the backhand cross court better than just about any other player on tour (taking into account movement to that side as well). He has a short take back, sets it up precisely and is extremely consistent. More importantly, his movement when stretched to his backhand is freakishly good, probably even better than Nadal’s. He is rarely forced to take one hand off the racquet and resort to a slice – for the most part he uses his flexibility and speed to slide into the shot, always perfectly on balance with his upper body rotation making errors from this wing very rare.

His inside-out forehand is a much improved shot. Like many other modern players, his extreme western grip and naturally spinny forehand means it is a lot more comfortable to hit with power when he can open up his body on the inside-out shot. He seems to have great confidence in this play against Nadal, and despite the very flat trajectory of the shot, also has a great consistency when hitting it.

All this amounts to Nadal’s forehand wing receiving a jolly good rogering whenever he comes up against the Serbian star. When under attack, Nadal’s natural strategy has always been to use his left handed forehand to hit an extremely spinny shot up high to his opponents backhand: the spin pushes the opponent back further being the baseline, and the height of the shot makes it difficult to attack. For the aforementioned reason of Novak’s backhand being an impregnable fortress, Nadal simply must force himself to hit his forehand down the line, to the Djokovic forehand. It is a far riskier shot (less net clearance and less space to bring the ball up and down), but he has proven in the past that he is capable of executing.

The Nadal Serve:

It is almost a tennis-euphemism to say that spinning a three-quarter pace serve to Novak Djokovic’s backhand is a death wish. Towards the end of the fourth set of their semi-final, Djokovic was hitting winners at will off Murray’s first and second serve. Murray’s first serve is far quicker and stronger than Nadal’s, meaning Rafa will enjoy very little success in trying to coax errors or short balls from the Djokovic backhand by attacking it with the kind of spinny serve usually reserved for drawing an innumerable amount of errors from Roger Federer’s backhand.

Therefore, he will have to abandon his high-percentage strategy in favour of  more risky serving. On the ad-side, he can’t keep on trying to slide a slice serve out to Djokovic’s backhand – he must also mix it up with the flat cannon down the T. Likewise on the deuce court, he will have to be able to hit both corners to keep Djokovic off-guard and guessing. A tall order for a man not usually associated with Croatianlevel serving, but a vital one nonetheless.

The Djokovic Volley:

Despite an impressive change in attitude in 2011, Djokovic is not a natural volleyer. In his post-match interview after the semi-final clash against Andy Murray, he joked that he was sorry to legendary player Rod Laver (who was in the crowd for the match) for not serve-volleying more, saying that his generation isn’t accustomed to moving forward from the baseline.

Djokovic is correct in that today’s players are pitifully poor in the volleying department compared to the great players of the past. In his relentless pursuit for greatness, Djokovic has ironed out every weakness in his game, improving not only the technical aspect of his volleys and approach shots, but also developing a very positive attitude toward the net game and a healthy sort of humility in his admittance that this is not a strong area of his game.

In an era when Roger Federer, one of the true all-time greats, stubbornly refuses to work on his weaknesses (even when it is resulting in being absolutely dominated by his closest rival), it is refreshing to see a no.1 player who acknowledges and can even laugh about his weaknesses. More importantly though, Djokovic put in the hours on the practice court, honing his volleying technique and improving his reactions at the net. This was combined with Novak coming forward an increasing amount during matches; he didn’t always win the point, but he kept coming, and gradually started to improve to the point where he could competently finish points at the net

This might not seem important when he’s up against Rafael Nadal, a man who has some of the most ferocious passing shots in the history of the game. But it is because of the Spaniard’s incredible defense, speed and anticipation that it becomes vital to have the confidence and the ability to come to the net when Nadal is off balance, and finish the point. Many players lose the confidence to come to the net against Nadal after one-too many spectacular passing shot winners from the Spaniard tends to rips the belief from them. One aspect in which Djokovic has been excellent is in his mentality – he is extremely self assured, calm and does not mind losing the kind of long ‘highlight reel’ points which end up with him passed at the net, Nadal aggressively pumping his fist and shouting Vamos! in his direction and the crowd going crazy on their feet. Where others might become intimidated, frustrated or annoyed, Djokovic will calmly go about his way. Nadal must go outside of his comfort zone to find a way to break Djokovic’s confidence.

TN


Player Profile: Nikolay Davydenko & Fernando Verdasco

This post focuses on an encounter between diminutive Ukrainian Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco, and is complete with a beautifully crisp HD highlights video.

Such a contest between two of the most exciting and talented baseliners in the game presents a perfect opportunity to analyse each players game and describe what makes each man so good at dominating from the back of the court.

As such, it will break down their games into the following categories: Serve, Volley, Forehand, Backhand, Movement and Return of Serve.

(The match took place at the 4th Round of the 2010 Australian Open with Davydenko winning 6-2 7-5 4-6 6-7 6-3)

Serve

Verdasco has a good service action and a very ‘live’ arm which results in excellent snap upon pronation of the forearm. He has hit serves up to 140 Mph and can also generate great spin.

However as shocking as it may sound for a top 10 player, Verdasco has never managed to master the ball toss. His toss is extremely inconsistent owing to the fact he doesn’t keep a rigid, linear movement with his right throwing arm and thus the ball often travels too far behind his head. This leads to frequent double faults and he hit no less than twenty in this match alone. With a consistent ball toss (and perhaps a brain transplant for Mr. Verdasco himself), his serve would be a serious weapon.

Davydenko has had his own share of serving problems. No stranger to fits of double faulting, he has improved his serve immensely, cutting down on double faults and vastly increasing the pace on his first delivery. Nonetheless, he tends to takes a percentage approach to serving, often going for a safer first delivery in order to protect his weaker second serve. Where stronger servers will aim for the corners with a 130mph+ delivery, Davydenko will (unless his confidence is high) go for a 90% pace first serve hit with moderate spin to his opponents weaker wing in order to maintain a high first serve percentage.
Volley

Not a great deal to comment upon here. Verdasco is extremely limited at the net, both in volleying technique and knowledge of how to approach the net (see 06:10 for a particularly bad approach shot). He generally will only move forward only if lured in by a drop shot or if his opponent is dragged so far off the court that they can only hit a floated lob in response.

Davydenko has improved vastly, to the point where he has been able to consistently hit winning drop volleys against Nadal, widely recognised as one of the best players in the world at passing shots. Like many of his generation, he is better on the backhand side than forehand and lacks the ability to punch the volley, instead relying almost exclusively on drive and drop volleys.

Movement

Davydenko is one of the most efficient movers on the tour. His strategy is to always take the initiative in rallies and so likes to stand right on the baseline, only retreating behind it after he has been forced to hit a weak, defensive shot.  The downside of assuming such an offensive position is that he has little time to react to the opponents shot. To balance this, he has developed infallible footwork to complement his natural agility and footspeed. This ensures he is always on balance and set up properly to take the ball on the rise. This in turn takes time away from his opponent and means he is rarely on the defense – however when he is forced into chasing down balls he is more than capable, both with passing shots and defensive slices (See 5:05 for a ridiculous winner hit on the run).

Verdasco has improved on this aspect during the off season of 2009-2010, but at times still appears sluggish around the court. He has developed a strong, muscular build but is not naturally an explosive athlete and his movement suffers for this. When pulled out wide into a defensive position he tends to simply pull the trigger in an all-or-nothing fashion, especially so on the forehand side – a spectacular, rally-ending shot he pulls off with surprising frequency. Quite mediocre when forced to stretch on his backhand side, particularly when hitting a passing shot off-balance.

Forehand

Davydenko’s forehand is beautiful in its simplicity. The short take back, moderate grip and absolute adherance to textbook form enables him to maximise his exceptional hand-eye co ordination. He is able to take the ball extremely early and hit cross court or down the line with equal ease, but it perhaps lacks one exceptional attribute; he does not have the power of a Berdych, the spin of a Nadal or the and variety of a Federer. Overall it is probably an inferior shot to his backhand.

Verdasco’s forehand has received much praise, and rightly so. It is a beautiful shot which is no less effective than it is aesthetically pleasing. His full western grip allows him to rally with a low-risk, heavily spun forehand which pushes his opponent back and sets up his devastating, point-ending flat forehand. He can also hit extraordinary angles with it it, making it one of the best forehands on tour, and one area in which he has a decided advantage over Davydenko.

Backhand

A victory for Davydenko.

Verdasco’s backhand is rarely a weapon as he simply is too sluggish in his preparation. Two handed backhands tend to be quite flat hits compared to the one handed variety, but Verdasco actually brushes up on the ball and has a more Nadal-esque follow through. Similar to his Spanish compatriot, his backhand usually functions simply as a shot to set up his forehand, but can pummel it when really in the mood. Even so, he will always need time to set up when going down the line.

Davydenko hits a far flatter backhand, with a short and confident backswing. The result is that he is able to take the ball earlier, hit harder and has more possibility to change the direction of the ball (something Verdasco struggles with). He has a devastating cross court backhand which has tormented Nadal in their hard court meetings, and an equally punishing down the line backhand. While perfectly capable of hitting acute angles, he doesn’t tend to do so unless provoked by his opponent with angle of their own.

Return of Serve

On second serve, Davydenko is one of the best in the world at punishing weak deliveries. Verdasco can be devastating when he chooses to run around his backhand and crack a forehand but is not active enough in doing so.

Davydenko is also the superior returner of first serves owing to his superior reaction speed and shorter take backs, despite having a smaller wingspan than the taller Verdasco.

TN


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!