Nalbandian grows into a Master



MAYBE it was just time. Maybe Roger Federer's 14-0 streak against Argentine players had just become insufferable. Maybe he, this taciturn Cordoban baseliner called Nalbandian, owner of strokes so wonderfully oiled, was weary of his reputation as a man who turned his back on the big occasion. Maybe it was just plain good fortune that Federer was about as close to full fitness as David Nalbandian usually is towards giving an answer that's more than two words.

All these maybes, all this consternation, it had a reason, for this score they've now put in the record books, Nalbandian beats Federer in the Masters Cup final in Shanghai 6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6, it's unreal, if we didn't see it we'd swear it was fiction.

Sure, David Nalbandian has given Federer trouble ever since he knocked him off in the US Open junior final in 1988. Yes, he had a 5-4 head-to-head against Federer (going into the final), but he'd also lost the last four. Of course, he's got an efficient game and winged feet and we're not sure how his passport says Citizen of Argentina because usually such fellows suffer anaphylactic shock when they stop onto any surface that isn't clay.

But nothing told us he could do this, nothing about him readied us for this strange, glorious moment when an aloof, private man produced a caterpillar-butterfly moment in front of a watching world. No one man beats this Swiss 24-consecutive-final-winning Goliath, when he is two sets to love up. Oh, but a David does.

By the end of it, Nalbandian was talking full sentences, commas and all, not a monosyllable to be seen, flowing in the press room as he had on court (well, maybe that's stretching it), caught between delight and disbelief, wondering at the insanity of it all for he wasn't even supposed to be in China. He wasn't in the Masters Cup elite eight, was packed in Cordoba and ready to go fishing with his buddies, till the phone rang, Andy Roddick was out, could he come, and fishing rod went into a wrapper and racket out, and there he was.

Hell, yes, he was no slouch as a fisherman, he'd once even caught a shark. But a Roger?

So it helped that Hewitt hadn't come, nor Safin, and Nadal quit early and so did Agassi, and Coria and Ljubicic and Davydenko were not the sort of names that made you consider wearing nappies on court. And then when he slipped into the final, was down 6-7, 6-7 to Federer, pushing the Swiss but not punishing him, it was like he'd done well and would be well paid, but this is it, adios.

No one expected what followed, and it was not just because one player was Federer, but because the other was Nalbandian.

Padding around court, he first caught the eye in 2002 when he slid into the Wimbledon final, and was slaughtered by Hewitt for he was nervous and unsure if he belonged, but still you thought, not bad for an Argentine, though the fact that his Armenian grandfather built a cement court in his backyard could account for his fluency on most surfaces.

He'd rise to No.4 in the rankings, in 2004, and in just four years on the circuit he'd both caught the attention and been trapped by cynicism. Of course, he could play, he'd been to the Australian Open quarter-finals, French and US Open semis, Wimbledon finals, and his game could dazzle because it was so clean, his shots so pure, an ambassador of timing.

But he was also a lightweight, not merely because his serve wasn't going to drill a hole in you at 40 paces, but because on court his mind seemed to have flown elsewhere and there was this soulless man hitting pleasing strokes but to no real effect, he seemed divorced from desire, absent of drive, and it's the most bizarre of things that when asked what he lacked, he'd admit it. "Motivation, sometimes". Greatness was not eluding him, he was hiding from it.

Already in the Masters Cup round-robin he'd led Federer 3-1 in the third set and then folded. Predictably. And then Ivan Ljubicic, speaking without malice, as if articulating a dressing room opinion, said: "David's a fantastic player but never won anything; we all know that he's not good in the important moments." It would make anyone wince, even a quiet fisherman.

Did Federer aid him in the final, by his missing fitness, by his romance with error? Sure. But Federer doesn't quit, it's not within him to be generous in a final, so we must say Nalbandian took it. Not once, but twice, but always stylishly.

Down 6-7, 6-7, in the final, the Argentine took the next two sets 6-2, 6-1, and he was sublime. He'd cream these two-fisted backhands down the line, ball taken early, feet set, shots of great skill and effrontery; he'd essay these forehand cross court, all fatal angle and pace; he'd step into Federer's limp second set and dismiss them to unreachable parts of the court. Two sets down, he'd tell himself: "Shit, I have to really fight now." And he did.

He knew, of course he knew, that Federer's ankle was not, as he said " a 100 per cent", and he did what anyone should, he tried, figuratively, to ensure it fell off. So he played, divinely, deliciously, a series of drop shots, more in a match than can be remembered, balls hissing across the net and collapsing, challenging Federer, teasing him, baiting him.

But there was one more chapter, one last stage in the metamorphosis from wimp to winner, for in the fourth set he went up 4-0, and then Federer bucked and seemed to slip this gaucho's lasso and galloped to 4-4, and then suddenly he was serving for the match at 6-5, and surely now Nalbandian was shaken, terrified, done. But, no, his mother watching, his country awake, he thought to himself: "I can't go home like this."

Sometimes a man doesn't know what he has, what reservoir of courage swirls within him, what resolve eddies inside, unless he reaches down in the moment and really looks for it. Nalbandian did and he found something. He broke Federer, he won the fifth set tie-breaker, he lay on his back victorious and when he got up he was a grown up player.

Of course, he said, this is the best win of my career, but it was more than that. "I think it's more important the way that I win," he said. From behind. In a final. Against Roger. It's a memory that must sustain him, it is a win earned that should send its own message to the locker room. David Nalbandian must not look back.