For the 31-year-old Argentine—a Wimbledon finalist at the age of 20, a semi-finalist in the other three Grand Slams, champion at the Masters Cup in 2005 and multiple winner over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—had been through operations before and been sidelined by injury countless times.
Always he returned to scramble back up the rankings with, it seemed, the minimum of match-play. Five times he ended the year in the top 10, reaching a career-high No3 in 2006. He ended 2009 at 64, yoyo-ed between 27 and 153 in 2010, and between 38 and 64 in 2011. Last year, he broke the top 40 but had been on the slide ever since.
This time, though, it sounded ominous from the start—two lots of surgery in one hit to right shoulder and right hip—and after several months, postponed press conferences, and ranked 231, he finally decided this October to draw a line under his career. The first day of 2014, the day Nalbandian turns 32, will dawn without his compelling presence on the tour.
He will be sorely missed by tennis fans across the world and across the generations. For there was always something about Nalbandian’s tennis that brought a smile to the face and a lift to the spirits, a ‘stage-presence’ combined with a balletic, multi-faceted talent.
It all started so well. He beat Federer to claim the US Open Junior title before going on to beat him in their first five tour matches: in Monte Carlo and Cincinnati, on Federer’s home turf of Basel, and twice in Grand Slams in 2003. He reached the Wimbledon final the year before Federer won it, and achieved his biggest title, the Masters Cup, in a quite stunning five-setter against Federer, having lost the first two sets in tie-breaks.
Among his 11 titles, perhaps the most memorable were his back-to-back Masters in Madrid and Paris in 2007. In both, he beat Federer and Nadal, as well as Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Novak Djokovic along the way.
During 2008, he reached five more finals, scoring two titles, but it was 2009 before he met Nadal again, in a rivalry that was low on numbers but heavy on quality—and would become a great friendship.
In those two 2007 matches, Nadal had managed to win just three and four games respectively, and there was soon a buzz in Indian Wells when Nalbandian again went a set and a break up.
The Argentine’s tight, compact action and light footwork make tennis look deceptively easy. He enjoys taking the initiative, striking the ball on the rise or out of the air, and he uses his skills with tactical intelligence, swinging the ball from one corner to the other, hitting with ever more acute angle and spin before picking off a floating return with a volley, a drifting drop shot or a leaping backhand winner.
In their 2009 contest, he had four match points on Nadal’s serve as well as one on his own: He had Nadal all but beaten for the third consecutive time. But few have been able to snatch defeat from the jaws of success as effectively as Nalbandian.
While fans enjoyed his athletic chess, his was always a demanding and energy-sapping formula. Without the fitness levels of a Nadal, it was tough to maintain. Nadal winkled out enough points to win the second set and, not for the first time, Nalbandian faded quickly in the decider.
A month later, Nalbandian faced a career-changing blow: hip surgery that took him out for the rest of the year. More injury setbacks saw him miss six straight Grand Slam tournaments until the 2010 US Open. Even so, he bumped into Nadal again, this time in Miami, and once again took the first set before losing in three.
He started 2011 with a fine win over Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of the Australian Open in a replay of one of the most memorable matches ever seen in Melbourne—the 2005 quarter-final that went Hewitt’s way, 10-8, in the fifth set. This time, as the clock ticked past 1am and four-and-three-quarter hours, it was Nalbandian who won, 9-7 in the fifth. But he was forced to retire from his second match and went under the knife again, this time for a groin injury.
He made his return on the summer grass but finished 2011 without a title for the first time since 2004. He hit the comeback trail in 2012, and at Indian Wells, who should he draw but Nadal—though few thought he would reach a quarter-final face-off. But that was to underestimate the Argentine gifts.
Nalbandian did indeed win four matches, taking out the likes of Marin Cilic, Janko Tipsarevic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the process. This time, though, Nadal won the first set, only for Nalbandian to level in the second but finally acquiesce, 4-6, in the third after two hours 40 minutes.
Memories are made of such matches, such rivalries, such shot-makers. 2012 would offer this fan two more chances to soak up the Nalbandian vibe, now all the more valued in the light of this autumn’s retirement.
The first was in Rome where the Argentine, still outside the seedings, again drew a Goliath, Andy Murray, in the second round.
Murray played near-perfect tennis to take the first set 6-1, but that was just the start of match coloured by brilliant tactical rallies of guile and variety through its entire two and a half hours.
Nalbandian broke at 5-4 in the second set with a tennis masterclass—now a soft forehand slice played short, now pushing Murray wide to ghost into the net, finally outmanoeuvring the younger, taller man to force the error. And the Argentine was the first to break in the third to the delight of an entranced crowd. But Murray levelled and broke at the last to win, 7-5.
Weeks later, it was Queen’s. The tournament, and Nalbandian’s part in it, will always be tainted by the red mist that descended on the Argentine as he was broken by Cilic in the second set of the final. Already a set up, Nalbandian raced after a ball, lost the point, and kicked a board surrounding the line-judge’s chair, drawing blood.
He was disqualified on the spot, missing the chance to win his first ever grass title in his first grass final since bursting onto the tennis stage at Wimbledon in 2002.
He clearly had not intended injury, as the referee afterwards conceded, but this hugely gifted man has as often been the victim of his own undoing as of the stars.
Nothing, though, ever prevented him from throwing body and soul into one special campaign: the pursuit of the Davis Cup. He played a leading role for his country throughout his career, won 39 rubbers, and played in all three finals, in 2006, 2008 and 2011—but never won the Cup.
Nalbandian’s final appearances were, appropriately enough, two exhibition matches against Nadal a fortnight ago in Argentina and, also appropriately, they won a match each before joining together one last time, on the same side of the net, for a doubles show.
This fan’s final memory, however, will remain at Queen’s—but not that final match.
It was late, on an outside court, where most of Nalbandian’s matches had been consigned in a rain-affected week. Despite the hour, the court was packed and, as is the way with fans watching tennis, comments drifted between neighbours. First:
I just love David’s tennis.
Yes…you, me, and a million others.
Nalbandian may have retired without a Grand Slam and without the Davis Cup, but he really did play a beautiful game of tennis.