Sunday, October 21, 2007

Madrid Day 7: Easy As Two-Three-One

He came into the event with a 19-17 record. He leaves it as a champion. A champion who made an historic run as the first unseeded player ever to defeat the top three players in the world to win a title, only the third man in history to climb such a mountain. And to make it more amazing, it is his first regular-season TMS shield and only his sixth career title.

David Nalbandian's new coach and training regimen paid dividends at the Madrid Masters this week. His play in the final two sets of his 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over defending champion Roger Federer was nothing short of stellar.

Before the final, Federer didn't drop serve. In the final two sets, Nalbandian broke him three times, including in match game, which is almost unheard of in Raja's reign.

Of course, I'm biased. For the first time in a long time, a player I wanted to win a title won a title. Alex has accused me of being anti-Federer. While I wouldn't put it quite that way and I certainly wouldn't consider it virulent (Federer hasn't done anything to harm me personally, after all), it's a fair accusation. I don't like Federer. But I dislike his domination even more. Which means I often root against him. I've never been anything but up front about that.

But today was different. I rooted for Nalbandian because I've always liked his game, always considered him one of the best ball strikers on the tour, always like the way he competed. But his mental flameouts on big stages made me bang my head against a wall. So much talent. So little belief.

Federer played well. This isn't the first final he's lost where he started out strong, only to be outperformed in the final two sets. The Dubai final of 2006 immediately springs to mind. And that loss was also to a player in Rafael Nadal who knows how to defeat Federer and has no fear of him.

Nalbandian withstood a great first set from the world No. 1 as well as some great shots throughout sets two and three. But when Nalbandian refused to go away, allow The Name to run away with it, unforced errors crept into Raja's game as he pressed to end points too soon.

For David's part, his backhand, as well as his improved serve, were the keys to his victory. But let's talk about his backhand for a moment.

You can't read it.

David has a big shoulder turn, so he can hit it crosscourt or down the line with the same wind up. Most two handers who can hit in both directions give away the down the line shot because of how they step into the ball. They have to open their left shoulder earlier in order to hit it late. Sometimes you can also see it coming from their stance.

But David hits a closed-stance backhand and rotates his entire trunk, not just his shoulders, to hit the shot. It's a thing of beauty. And he used his down-the-line backhand flawlessly in the final set to disallow Raja from controlling play from the ad side of the court as he prefers.

"I'm extremely contented to beat the world No. 1. Roger and I have a long history and I think that influenced the match," said Nalbandian.

"Things came out fine. Today I played incredible."

"It's a great way to finish the season and to go into the next one. To beat such great players as I did this week makes it important."

Who knows where Nalbandian will go from here. But the way he overcame the first set -- a set in which it seemed everything (shotspot, let cords) was going Raja's way -- dug in, upped his game, and shored up his devastating backhand to dominate the last two sets is a hopeful sign for men's tennis. I'm over the Federer-Nadal rivalry, over the Djokovic hype. If Nalbandian can remain injury free, there's no reason why he can't be a force in 2008 and get back in the top 10, perhaps putting an end to the cacophony of premature declarations about where tennis is headed and who will take it there.


tristann said...

Great victory for Nalby and in such a decisive fashion, taking out #2 and #3 in straight sets and then taking control of the final after the first set against the #1. I hope he gets his due credit for this victory and can follow up through the rest of this year and next.
Way to go, David!!

Karen said...

Congrats Nalby. Well deserved victory.

tangerine said...

I love that photo of Roger. Not only because he's got that intense I'm-gonna-get-even-with-you look in his face but he's also lost the last of his baby fat and he looks like a man these days. Maybe he was a man before but he looks different to me lately.

It must be the hormones. Either his or mine.

Nina said...

I am so happy for David. With all the victories this week, he made a statement. When he wins, he is simply a better player--not because his opponent is "injured," "tired," or in a "bad mood," the way media almost always explains Nalbandian's wins.

Karen said...

Tangi you can be sure that he is going to get Nalby next time. No doubt about that one. Who says that this is a weak era. Very very happy for Nalby. Can you imagine being on tour for so long and just winning your first Masters Series Shield. I mean I know he won the year end championships but even if it is at the end of the season, a win is a win is a win and as an ardent Fed KAD I have to say that I was very happy for Nalby today.

Craig Hickman said...

I think men's tennis is weak because it's full of so many mental weaklings, and I don't exempt my fave from that description.

Nalby needs to stay injury-free, something he has not been for much of his career.

I'd like to see him win a Slam before it's all said and done.

I've got family issues today, so don't know if I'll get to write my take on the final, but if I do, I will.

Karen said...

Hey Craig, sorry to hear about family issues. Hope it is something that can be resolved quickly and without much hurt on your part. Love to hear your take. For my part I think Fed underestimated Nalby, that put together with the way he played the first set and the fact that he just never responded to Nalby's serve. Nalby was on with his returns and was winning most of the baseline rallies. He mixed up his game a lot and hung tough on the big points. A lot of people were saying that Fed was playing well. I dont think so. I think he played a pretty good match against Canas because he had something to prove. He has not been the same since USO, where in my opinion he did not play that well to win the tournie. That being said, I will never take anything away from Nalby. He hung tough and deserved the win.

Savannah said...

Karen you sum it up nicely. The match reminded me of Dubai a couple of years ago when Roger played flawless tennis in the first set and Rafa came back to kick his rear.
Glad to see Nalby do it.

Craig Hickman said...

I just put the Dubai comparison in the entry.

Great minds.... (wink)

Mad Professah said...

it's amazing that Nalbandian has only won 6 titles and Federer has won 50!

All credit to David--he played better today. Should I say "he should play like that all the time"? :)

Savannah said...

I love watching that Dubai match. Does that make me a bad person?

Craig Hickman said...

LOL, Savannah.

rabbit said...

The news of Roger's defeat made me so down yesterday. I lost my cellphone in the morning, but when I read about Roger's defeat, I really started to feel pretty bad about the day.

Is this the year that years ahead, people will say marked the decline of Federer? The year that he struggled through his slam victories and lost against some unremarkable or streaky players. I hate to say it but in that final match, it seemed David was the higher seeded player who had an answer to every one of Roger's plays. Craig says that Roger depends on luck; well, I partly agree. 2007 is the first year I will say Federer truly deserved less than the slams he won. Wimbledon was won because of a Nadal error on a crucial break point. The US Open was won because Djokovic seemingly didn't play to win. The Aussie Open was one of his virtuoso performances. The rest of the year seemed to be a dreary ride and often downhill.

The thing with Federer is that his fans love him not so much because he wins but the fashion in which he wins. His classic 6-0 sets against Roddick, Blake and Hewitt come to mind. The crisp backhand passes, the out-of-nowhere forehand winners, the ridiculous defense, the near-impossible anticipation and the lavish use of creativity. This year, though, it seems these things are coming only in small measures, in spurts rather than in gushes. I thought that his play against Murray last year (when he got beaten) was strange, but seemingly that has become his norm in playing against players like Davydenko this year. Compare his match against Hewitt in Cincinatti this year versus his classic US Open final with Hewitt. There's something that is slowly getting lost...

Come on, Roger, give us some more of your finest! We know that it takes so much more to be #1 for so many weeks than to make a week-long impression. But the "premature declarations about where tennis is headed and who will take it there" are well-justified. We have seen you operate at your best; we know you are not a couple-of-round streak but can sustain your jogo bonito for the full tournament duration. Give us back a little more of your magic! We want a lot more 6-0 sets in 2008.

oddman said...

Spoken like a true Fedfan, rabbit. Good for you. I, not being a Fedfan, am thinking completely differently than you. I like to see other players win, I find it tiring to watch Fed win again and again, and those 6-0 sets just add to my disinterest in tennis whenever Roger is playing. Having matches be more competitive excites me. I don't even mind Fed winning if he's challenged and has to gut one out, but haven't seen too much of that - perhaps the first 4 sets of the 'final that shouldn't be mentioned'. (sorry, Savannah) I'm tired of seeing his competitors folding like a house of cards just 'cause it's Federer across the net.
I don't think any gloom and doom is warranted just yet though. Would be nice, but....