Nalbandian fights off battling Baghdatis for Washington title
They are both names that make every lover of tennis sit up and take notice.
It is not their Grand Slam tally, nor even their Masters wins, that crank up the anticipation, though both have been top 10 players and Slam finalists. It is simply that they can both produce the kind of charismatic and high-quality shot-making that leaves opponents rooted to the spot, even opponents such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
World No117 David Nalbandian and No26 Marcos Baghdatis were not obvious favourites to fight out this important 500 event. They are at different stages in comebacks from injury, and neither readily conforms to the mold of the new generation of tall, rangy players expected to excel on the hard-courts in the coming month.
But they are loved by tennis aficionados for their flair, their attack, and their passion.
For Baghdatis, this love affair began in 2006 when, yet to break into the top 100, he set the Australian Open alight by taking out four top-20 players, including No3 Andy Roddick. He eventually fell to Federer in the final, having taken the first set, but he was in the top 10 by the end of the year.
A succession of injuries gradually dragged the Cypriot back to the wilderness. Just 12 months ago, he was ranked 150, but has since won three Challenger events, the Stockholm title and, to open 2010, the Sydney title. By the time he reached the Washington final, he had notched up the third best record on hard courts this year -23-8 -behind Andy Roddick and Marin Cilic.
Nalbandian had a special “something” right from the start. Two years after turning pro, he was a finalist at Wimbledon, went on to reach the semis of the other three Slams, and made the quarters of five more. He also won the World Tour Finals in 2005, beating Federer. Indeed Nalbandian is one of the few men to beat Federer and Nadal in the finals of two consecutive Masters: Madrid and Paris in 2007.
Last year, while struggling with injury, he almost beat Nadal again at Indian Wells, but soon after, he succumbed to hip surgery. He rejoined the ATP circuit this January, but was thwarted by strained abdominal muscles before he had played a single competitive match.
In March, he played the tie-winning match in the Davis Cup and a month later almost beat Nadal in Miami in only his eighth match in 12 months. A fortnight later, he took the world Nos13 and 23 out of the Monte Carlo Masters, but a pulled hamstring prevented his entry to the French Open and Wimbledon.
So Washington was only his fifth tournament this year, but he played it like a man who had wagered his life on the outcome. He won the first three matches for the loss of just nine games, battled past Gilles Simon in a tough three-setter to reach the semi-finals, and then dismissed Cilic with a demonstration of attacking, entertaining tennis that few other players can match.
It took his win-loss record for the year to 16-3: not bad for a 28-year-old who missed most of the last 18 months with injury.
So here it was: a final to make the mouth water.
Nalbandian came out with all guns blazing and broke the Cypriot to love in the first game. But by mid set, Baghdatis had hit his own stride and was returning angled drives, drop shots, and down-the-line passes of his own. The two men play a similar game: swinging wide, flat shots at sharp pace and with acute trajectories all around the court.
Just as Baghdatis seemed to be holding back the Argentine flood, however, Nalbandian raised his own game a notch and broke again in the seventh game to serve out the first set with ease, 6-2.
The second set almost began the same way, with Nalbandian bullying both the ball and his opponent, but Baghdatis resisted a break point with some fine serving to hold.
That seemed to switch the momentum. Baghdatis was all over his opponent’s serve -helped by a couple of double faults from the Argentine’s racket -and fired away a couple of off-forehand drives worthy of Nalbandian himself. Suddenly he had a break.
Nalbandian promptly returned the compliment with break points of his own. One sizzling backhand fired at break-neck speed onto the baseline even had Baghdatis break into his huge trademark smile. It was an immediate break back.
A long fourth game of multiple deuces saw Nalbandian again struggle to find a first serve, and he looked more drained with every ounce of sweat that saturated his shirt.
It looked at this stage as though both the physical and mental fatigue of playing his first complete tournament for a year-and-a-half would take their toll, and a fresh-looking Baghdatis attacked ruthlessly in the searing afternoon heat.
But this newly-modelled Nalbandian is made of sterner stuff than the unpredictable player of two years ago. Both men swung freely at their ground-strokes, raced for drops shots, reached for smashes.
It was fabulous stuff and, quite rightly, ended in a tie-break. Nalbandian took a 5-0 lead and, although Baghdatis clawed back to 5-4, the Argentine held on for a popular victory.
Baghdatis summed it up: “He’s a pain when he plays goodÃ¢â‚¬Â¦He played really good.”
Make no mistake. The Cypriot had a good tournament and played some exceptional tennis in the final. But he came up against a man who can do everything that much better. Indeed, in full pomp, Nalbandian is as gifted a player as anyone on the tour.
He said, after his semi demolition of Cilic, that being away from tennis for so long had made him realise how much he missed it, and he does not intend to waste a single moment of the latter stage of his career.
If he can stay pain-free and focused, perhaps the hyper-gifted Nalbandian will at last shed his unofficial title of “best man never to win a Slam.”