David Nalbandian's last big chance

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
10:29
AM ET
He's been to a Wimbledon final and is arguably the most talented player never to win a Grand Slam title. He is also well-known for his temper. Andy Murray, you say? That's one choice, but he's not the only right answer.

We're talking about David Nalbandian, who has replaced Marat Safin as the player who takes part in seemingly every "interesting" early-round match at a major tournament. It's an unavoidable fate for the former world No. 3, who is now on the fringe of getting seeded at Slams but still possesses a formidable -- and, if we must, "dangerous" -- game. It's become a cliché, but there's no sense in denying it: Nalbandian's strokes, particularly his two-handed backhand, can still trouble the game's elite. Had the fiery Argentine not injured a linesperson by kicking an on-court advertisement in Queen's Club, he probably would have won the Wimbledon tune-up tournament.

Nalbandian's draw at Wimbledon this past June was about as bad as it gets. Instead of facing a qualifier or a midlevel opponent in the first round, he drew eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic, who won in straight sets. On some levels, it was a surprising sweep; on others, it wasn't surprising at all. Nalbandian has confounded throughout his career, mixing in spectacular showings (he outlasted John Isner 10-8 in the fifth set at this year's Australian Open, and he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Indian Wells) with frustrating head-scratchers (losing to No. 92 Adrian Ungur in the first round at Roland Garros certainly qualifies).

But Nalbandian has another shot at the All England Club after Wimbledon, as London hosts the Olympic Games. It won't be exactly the same as four weeks ago -- purple will be most prevalent on the backboards rather than the club members' ties -- but it's still the same surface on which Nalbandian reached the 2002 Wimbledon final. There's also a shift from best-of-five set play to best-of three, which should benefit Nalbandian, who has been known to start out strong and fade against higher-ranked opponents. Still, Nalbandian's physical issues are less a concern than the mental blocks that have, perhaps, prevented him from claiming one of the sport's grand chalices.

Focus shouldn't be a problem at the Olympics, where Nalbandian will play not only for gold but also for his country. Representing Argentina in international play, Nalbandian has been exceptional, posting a 23-6 record in singles competition and a 14-5 mark in doubles. He's helped lead his homeland to an astounding seven Davis Cup semifinals and three finals, most recently last year against Spain. In that tie, held in boisterous Seville, Spain, Nalbandian and partner Eduardo Schwank won the only point for Argentina, routing the experienced team of Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco in a must-win match. Nalbandian was superb, controlling play from the baseline while showing exquisite touch at net. He'll hope to do that again with Schwank in London, as the pair will participate in the doubles event.

Murray, who is also playing in the singles and doubles events, will get two more chances to give British fans a taste of the historic victory they crave, but he'll have many more opportunities to tantalize and/or torment his supporters in the future. Nalbandian's case is much different: He turned 30 this year and has appeared to plateau in the rankings. It seems unlikely that he'll ever snag the Grand Slam title that's eluded him. But a medal at the Olympics seems more realistic. With 64-player/team draws, Nalbandian needs to win just four matches on his own or with Schwank to play for a medal. It would be one of the most important matches in his career -- and considering his history, these Olympics may already be the most important tournament remaining in Nalbandian's career.

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