Sunday, October 21, 2007
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.