ATP

David Nalbandian: Reflecting on the man who mastered the Big 3

The only man in history to defeat all members of the Big 3 in a single ATP tournament, repeating a similar feat in the following tournament: David Nalbandian.

Born in Argentina only 4 months after the great Roger Federer, David Nalbandian was destined to play at the highest level among the greats. He had begun a rivalry with Federer from as early as 1998, where he triumphed over him in the Junior’s US Open final and securing a Junior rank of no. 3 in the world.

Since turning pro in 2000, David Nalbandian has had a very impressive tennis career, in spite of never claiming a Grand Slam title to his name. Rather, the Argentinian had stunned the tennis world through some very notable feats that would practically be considered impossible to achieve today.

In 2002, David Nalbandian had a very impressive performance at Wimbledon, reaching the final and finishing as the runner-up after conceding defeat to the then-world no.1, Lleyton Hewitt. Aged only 24, Nalbandian ceased consecutive victories over a series of top-class players to reach the Wimbledon finals, such as Nicolas Lapentti and Xavier Malisse, both of whom were ranked in the top 20.

These achievements were simply a taste of what was to come, as the young Argentinian was showing glimpses of a top-class contender worthy to be named the best tennis player in the world. No one was sure about just how much-unexplored potential Nalbandian was holding inside, and his feats on the court seemed to have no limits as far as spectators could tell.

This all changed in 2007 at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Madrid, when David Nalbandian, ranked no. 26 at the time, put on what is still to this day arguably the greatest display of tennis against an impossible draw. Before even thinking about the quarter-finals, Nalbandian was tasked with overcoming Arnaud Clement, Juan Martin del Potro, and Tomas Berdych in his first 3 rounds, who were ranked 40, 53, and 11 respectively.

There was no time to rest for the Argentinian after taking down these 3 very formidable foes, as he was put up against the world no.2 Rafael Nadal upon reaching the quarter-finals. An insane performance by David Nalbandian saw him overcome the Spaniard in straight sets and with a stunning score of 6-2 6-1.

Again, there was no time to put his guard down, as his semi-final match was up against Novak Djokovic, who was ranked no.3 at the time. David Nalbandian displayed his very iconic acute-angled groundstrokes with low trajectories on both forehand and backhand sides, which would often result in sending his opponent out wide and opening up big opportunities for him to end the point at the net, a feat he performed relentlessly against Nadal in the quarters.

Coined with possessing the greatest two-handed backhand on the tour, David Nalbandian overcame the Serbian in the semi-finals, again defeating a member of the top 3 in straight sets to win 6-4 7-6, setting up a showdown with the world no.1 Roger Federer. This feat alone was enough to stun the commentators and analysts, but little did they know it was about to get all the crazier, as the tennis world was now more hyped than ever to witness this magical match-up between David Nalbandian and Roger Federer in the 2007 Madrid Masters Final.

In addition to the fact that David Nalbandian had just stunned the tennis world by beating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back, there was also a history of rivalry between Nalbandian and Federer which made this finals match-up that much more exciting. Not only were the 2 rivals as Juniors, but also as seasoned professionals, with a tight head-to-head of 8-6 in Federer’s favor.

The opening set of the 2007 Madrid Masters Final saw Roger Federer completely dominate the 1st set to put Nalbandian down 1-6 in the match-opener. The Swiss Maestro looked very promising, as he constantly passed Nalbandian’s attempts at the net, while also putting on a solid net game of his own.

In the 2nd set, it seemed as though David Nalbandian had flipped a switch in his playstyle, showing more competitiveness during rallies and opening up the court with his classic top spin angles which always seemed to find the lines. After breaking Federer’s first service game, Nalbandian went on to win the 2nd set 6-3 with an impressive performance both at the baseline and at the net.

The final set saw Nalbandian break Federer’s 2nd service game this time, and consolidating relentlessly through his own service games. Much like the 2nd set, the Argentinian had not had his serve broken throughout the final set, holding all his service games since the end of the 1st set, and securing the set and match with an awesome comeback score of 1-6 6-3 6-3 and winning his first Madrid Masters title.

At that moment, David Nalbandian became the first and only player in history to defeat Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer consecutively in a single tournament, and to this day 13 years later, he is still the only player to do so. As though this was not impressive enough, the 2007 Madrid Masters champion then went on to produce a similar feat in the very next ATP Tour Masters 1000 tournament, the Paris Masters.

While Nalbandian did not take down all 3 members of the Big 3 this time around, as Djokovic had fallen early on to Fabrice Vetea Santoro, his run in Paris was just as, if not, more impressive than that of Madrid. This time, the Argentinian was matched against world no.1 Roger Federer as early as the 3rd round, yet somehow pulling off another victory over him in straight sets to tie-up their head-to-head rivalry at 8-8 each.

With everyone’s eyes now on Nalbandian, the crowd was cheering enthusiastically for the underdog to produce another impressive tournament run. The Argentinian did not disappoint and proceeded to overcome 5th seed David Ferrer in the quarter-finals, and 10th seed Richard Gasquet in the semis, setting up a final showdown with a Big 3 member yet again, this time the world no.2 and 2nd seed Rafael Nadal.

David Nalbandian once again put on a spectacular display of superior groundstroke action and a solid net game to dominate the Spaniard 6-4 6-0 in the final to win the 2007 Paris Masters, securing back-to-back ATP Masters 1000 titles in a matter of weeks. Unbelievably, this meant David Nalbandian had defeated the world’s greatest players Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal two times each within 3 weeks.

This feat had never been achieved by any player on tour, past and present, and is unlikely to ever be achieved before the Big 3 retire from the sport. As such, David Nalbandian became a legend of the game and is often coined the title of the greatest player to never win a Grand Slam.

Unfortunately, Nalbandian would eventually retire at the early age of 31 years after a series of injuries and operations, and perhaps a lack of passion to continue competing in the sport. Instead, the tennis legend decided to pursue other interests and is now a professional motorsports racer in the Argentine Rally Championship, where he continues to create an incredible legacy within the world of sports.