Can you imagine what it will be like when Roger Federer calls it a career? Or when Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray decides to put away his racket for good? Or even when Juan Martin del Potro, the only player besides the aforementioned four to have won a Grand Slam singles title since 2005, says adios?
I say this because it was somewhat surprising to hear so much reaction to the retirement of David Nalbandian. Arguably the best player never to have won a Slam, the 31-year-old reached No. 3 in the rankings and at least the semifinals of all four majors. But to outsiders it must have seemed like tennis heads were talking about one of the game’s integral players, not someone who hasn’t won a title in three years or a title of great significance in six years -- both the Madrid and Paris Masters, which he won in back-to-back weeks in 2007.
I chalk the buzz up to two things: First, Nalbandian has always been a polarizing player. Some people adored him for his talent, others panned him for not being able to harness it on the sport’s biggest stages. (He was also part of three Davis Cup teams that lost in the final.) Some people liked his everyman attitude; others felt he didn’t treat the game with respect. You won’t have to search far to find a piece written about Nalbandian’s fitness or the incident that got him disqualified in last year’s Queen’s Club final. As you’ll see, you’re reading one right now.
The other reason is a reminder that, even in this era of men’s tennis dominated by a powerful quartet, there are other players worth recognizing and discussing. They may not grab the spotlight often or puncture the general sports landscape, but there is more than the big four, and Nalbandian was one of the best in that second tier. Here are four of my memories of the Argentine, at his best and worst:
1. Nalbandian experienced major disappointment throughout his career. He was dominated in the 2002 Wimbledon final by Lleyton Hewitt and saw late leads evaporate in the semifinals of the 2003 US Open (he held a match point against Andy Roddick) and the 2006 Australian Open (he fell in five sets to Marcos Baghdatis). But one missed opportunity that’s often forgotten came at the 2006 French Open, where Nalbandian faced Federer at his peak. David did some good things in this match, taking the first set 6-3 and leading the second by a break. But Goliath would win this one as a result of a different kind of Nalbandian retirement, one he called for in the third set because of an abdominal injury. Nalbandian, still just 24 at the time, wouldn’t reach another Grand Slam quarterfinal.
2. Nalbandian had reason to think that victory over Federer was possible -- he'd beaten him just seven months earlier at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. It was the best of his eight wins over the Swiss legend; at one point Federer was 0-5 against Nalbandian. But Federer won their next four meetings, and a fifth straight win looked all but certain when the world No. 1 took what appeared to be an insurmountable lead.
Federer won the first two sets -- but he needed tiebreakers in both. Riding his beauty of a backhand and steadily increasing momentum, Nalbandian lost just three games in the next two sets, then won his first tiebreaker of the match in the deciding fifth. Federer had won 24 consecutive finals, and 35 consecutive matches, before this defeat.
3. Fast-forward seven years to another final, with Nalbandian playing Marin Cilic at Queen’s Club. Up a set and serving at 3-3 in the second, Nalbandian ran to his right to play Cilic’s service return, and his reply drifted long. What was on target, however, was Nalbandian’s foot, which he used to kick an advertising placard in frustration, which was directly in front of a seated linesman. The result? The official was cut in the leg and Nalbandian was disqualified. Did Nalbandian think the grass court was a soccer pitch? It’s the only explanation for a bizarre incident that he will forever be remembered for.
4. I’ll leave Nalbandian’s career on a high note, and there are plenty to choose from, including his famous indoor Masters double. But one I’ll never forget is when I watched him play in person at the 2011 Davis Cup final in Seville. A stalwart of the competition, Nalbandian came to the early-December tie having not played since October. He was tossed into the ultimate pressure cooker: a must-win doubles match (Spain won both of Friday’s singles matches) in the raucous Estadio Olimpico, with a partner he’d never played with before, Eduardo Schwank.
As we celebrate Nalbandian’s career today (OK, some of us), I’ll remember the only celebration that took place that day, between the baby blue-and-white clad players and their boisterous supporters. Nalbandian was impeccable, displaying ingenious touch and his trademark groundstrokes in a clinical 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 dismissal of Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco. It left the crowd stunned. The next day it took Nadal’s best, a hard-fought four-set win over del Potro, to secure the Cup for Spain.
Nalbandian also had a history of pressuring Nadal. The Argentine won their first two head-to-head matches. And although Rafa would win their next five encounters, Nalbandian had already proved, once again, that on any given day, there might be no one better than he was.