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Monday, October 22, 2007
Expect the unexpected

For a player who can win everywhere, David Nalbandian has spent an awful lot of time not winning anywhere.

The stealthy, shark-like Argentine has reached at least the semifinals of every single Grand Slam during his career -- including an unexpected run to the Wimbledon final in 2002 -- but the only major title he's earned is that of the best player never to win one.

In fact, until last week, he could also be tagged the best player never to win even a Masters Series title. He's changed that, big time -- taking out Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer back-to-back-to-back to win Madrid and break the stranglehold those three players have had on the big events this season.

Nalbandian isn't the first player to deliver the 1-2-3 punch this season -- Djokovic did it in Montreal when he knocked out Andy Roddick, Nadal and Federer in successive rounds. Prior to this year only one player since '94 had pulled off the trifecta (Boris Becker, Stockholm 1994). Since Becker was a former No. 1 and Djokovic is looking increasingly like a future No. 1, the No. 25-ranked Nalbandian may be the most surprising of the trio.

Certainly few would have seen it coming. He lost in the second round of Vienna two weeks ago, his first event since the U.S. Open. In between, he impulsively took part in a professional rally car race in Argentina -- hardly the sort of pastime a cautious tennis player planning a big fall campaign might indulge in. Between that and hotly denying rumors of a relationship with Playboy model and former nationally-ranked player Victoria Vanucci, it didn't look like his fall season was shaping up to be anything other than a write-off.

As it is, Madrid turned out to be the lone bright spot in a long and grinding season. Only 23 of his 42 matches this year have been settled in straight sets, and at the Australian Open he twice had to come back from two sets to love down in brutally hot conditions.

Paradoxically, these lengthy heroics have been accompanied by doubts about his overall level of fitness and commitment, with even his brother and coach questioning his dedication at one point in the season. Opinion of the 25-year-old is also somewhat soured by his reputation for surliness -- he even managed an on-court squabble with "Gentleman" Tim Henman last year. But he can occasionally show a different side, praising Federer during a gracious acceptance speech in Madrid.

In July, Nalbandian hired a new coach, Martin Jaite, and is now talking about using his latest victory as a boost for next year. But it's far from given that he'll follow up on this memorable Madrid run. His last big win came at the 2005 Masters Cup in Shanghai, when he came from two sets down in the final to defeat -- who else? -- Federer, who was playing his first event after an ankle injury. Nalbandian used to give Federer fits during their early days on tour before losing that edge, but some of the effect clearly still lingers.

But 2006 was a mixed season, bookended by the disappointment and shock of blowing a two-set lead to Marcos Baghdatis at the Australian Open in January and the end of the Davis Cup dream against Russia in the final in December (a month earlier, his 9-year-old godson had been killed in an elevator accident).

Semifinals seem to be something of an Achilles' heel for Nalbandian -- he reached six at Grand Slams or Masters Series last year, and lost them all. The year after his appearance in the Wimbledon final, Nalbandian suffered yet another heartbreaking semifinal loss, going down to Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open after being up two sets and holding match point in the third. In 2004, he lost the French Open semifinal 6-0 in the third set against lower-ranked compatriot Gaston Gaudio; the year ended in sorrow with the passing of Nalbandian's father Norberto.

A struggling Nadal, a tired Djokovic and a walkabout Federer helped Nalbandian's cause in Madrid, but the solid all-court play he produced to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him reflect his top-five credentials. "When I am physically and technically good, I can beat anybody," he said.

So will the perennial semifinalist take the next step? Judging by past form -- probably not. But if there's one thing we've learned to expect from Nalbandian, it's the unexpected.