Nicolas Almagro needs some belief
Every sport has its lingo. In football, adversity is the choice buzzword. Whether the real recovery from debilitating injury or the contrived winning a road game, it is code for a challenge that must be defeated. Overcoming adversity is the sport's currency for measuring toughness. In baseball, pitchers talk of making and finishing pitches, jargon for essentially having the conviction that mentally and physically, the guy on the mound thinks the ball leaving his arm is thrown well enough, with enough heart to get the other guy out.In tennis, the word is belief, belief in a particular shot, a strategy, in overall abilities. It is, in short, industry-speak about having the confidence not only to play well, but to win in the most pressurized of situations in a sport without the bailouts of coaching or timeouts.
Where, after a recent spectacular crumbling, another heartbreaking collapse on the biggest stage, can the doomed and beaten Nicolas Almagro turn to for belief?
With all the focus on the big four, and Almagro not being a household name, his struggles haven't made for big headlines.
Since Thanksgiving, Almagro replaced Rafael Nadal on the defending champion Spanish Davis Cup team and lost two of the five matches -- including a major five-set upset loss to Radek Stepanek -- as the Czech Republic took the title.
Then, at the Australian Open, he suffered a spectacular meltdown against countryman David Ferrer. Almagro was up two sets to none, serving twice for the match in the third set and again in the fourth and never earned a single match point in a crushing five-set loss. It was a devastating defeat considering he had lost all 12 previous head-to-head matches to Ferrer.
And just a couple of weeks ago, in the fourth round at Roland Garros, it appears Almagro reached his denouement, losing fantastically yet again, this time to another Spaniard, the inspiring Tommy Robredo. Almagro was leading two sets to none, 4-1 in the third set and 4-2 in the fourth, before falling 6-4 in the fifth.
When it was over, Almagro was appropriately shattered, trying to find consolation in perspective.
"To be honest, it's difficult to say," Almagro said when asked what happened. "I think Tommy played a very constant match. He was very regular, and for me I had my ups and downs. These ups and downs cost me the match … For my part, I need to move on as best I can.
"It is true that I'm affected by this. I don't know what adjective to use," he said. "At the same time I feel privileged to have arrived up until this point, to have the life that I lead, to have my team around me that has blind confidence in me, my family that supports me right up to the hilt. I think that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. That's sport and you have to accept that."
This is a critical time for Almagro. He's no scrub, a fringe player overmatched at the end by better players. He finished 2012 ranked 11th and is now 16th. He is supremely gifted and powerful for a player standing 6 feet tall. He's got weapons, leading the tour in aces with 386 in 38 matches. He owns one of the best one-handed backhands in the game, right there with Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet. And he was in that small group of players in which drive, fire and determination drove him to the top 10, despite a lack of a complete big four-style game.
But belief is not a throwaway term, and Almagro is being saddled by its sharp-edged corollary: the reputation that he doesn't have it, that he cannot be trusted in the tight moments because he doesn't trust himself. The "ups and downs" of the Robredo match were his fits of overhitting, a byproduct of a lack of patience, a lack of belief that he could survive the punishing rally, succumbing to nerves because he did not believe he was tough enough to take what Robredo offered and deliver one shot better.
As the altitude thinned and the finish line neared, it was the higher-ranked Almagro whose belief waned, just as it did fatally in Melbourne against Ferrer, just as it could not sustain him during Davis Cup, and as the match reached its conclusion it was difficult not to think that Almagro has entered the worst space for an athlete: the one where his own head is the unbeatable opponent, far more powerful than the guy across the net. He's the guy who cannot cross the finish line.
He must now carry another magnificent and staggering failure into the rest of the year, along with a 1-34 record against Novak Djokovic (0-3), Andy Murray (1-3), Roger Federer (0-5), Nadal (0-10) and Ferrer (0-13).
Nadal is a legend, but making it all worse for Almagro is the presence of Ferrer, the pure competitor who is less talented physically, possessing fewer natural weapons, but who is frighteningly tough, both on tour and especially in Davis Cup play. Without the presence of Nadal, it was Almagro who had the opportunity to stand beside Ferrer in the Davis Cup against the Czech Republic and defend the Spanish championship.
Almagro had his moment, finally a key member of the Spanish team, pitted against his longtime nemesis, Tomas Berdych, who tweaked him further by calling him the "weak link" of the Spanish team before beating him in singles. The gutsy Stepanek finished off the nightmare in the championship decider.
Now Almagro heads to the grass season, his least favorite surface, to Wimbledon. He is 7-8 lifetime, has never escaped the third round and has been bounced in the first in four of his eight appearances at The Championships. This is the bad time for Nicolas Almagro, and as the weight of past failures grows heavier, making winning more difficult, victory is the only thing that can restore him as a competitor.