David and Goliath
Chip Le Grand
January 16, 2006
LET'S imagine, just for a while, that Roger Federer is not a certainty to win this year's Australian Open. That all the matches scheduled over the next two weeks, the countless balls bludgeoned and court time clocked by 127 other players, will be for something more than the honour of being the first to congratulate the world's best player on his seventh Grand Slam title.
Now, picture the face of the other player most likely to win the tournament. Is it Andy Roddick, with his monster serve and off-court charms? Is it Lleyton Hewitt, with his snarling countenance and combative ways? Or is it David Nalbandian, the only seeded player here with a winning record against Federer and the bloke who knocked him off in five grand sets in the final of last year's season-ending Masters Cup in Shanghai?
Normally, you would not expect to read anything about Nalbandian until midway through the second week of an Australian Open, where his baseline-burning, marathon matches have been known to finish long after the Channel Seven producers have gone to bed. If Marat Safin or Rafael Nadal were in town, you certainly wouldn't be reading about him now.
But if it is accepted that the winner of the Australian Open will have to beat Federer at some point, then Nalbandian has rightful claims to be considered this year's No.1 contender. He might not have the power of Roddick nor the killer instinct of Hewitt. But when it comes to beating Federer, he appears to have something that the American and local hope lack.
There are only seven men who hold a winning record against Federer after three or more matches. Of those, only Britain's Tim Henman and Nalbandian are still in the game.
It is not a surprising statistic because Federer rarely loses. In 2004 he played 80 and lost six. Last year he played 85 and lost four.
The players who beat Federer were Safin in an unforgettable semi-final at Melbourne Park, Nadal at the French Open, Richard Gasquet at another clay court event and Nalbandian in Shanghai.
Such is the expectation that Federer will win every match that he was yesterday asked about losing an exhibition match to Tommy Haas four days earlier at Kooyong.
"I mean, it happens if you don't play your best, right?" a slightly bemused Federer replied. "It is nothing new. I'm surprised I keep on winning all those matches. But it is hard to keep it you know, especially an exhibition tournament."
Yet if Federer doesn't expect to beat everyone all the time, it seems that fewer and fewer players believe they can beat Federer at any time.
Roddick has won one match against Federer in 11 attempts. His sole victory came in Montreal in 2003 and he has won one set in their six meetings since. Like every other player, Roddick has taken time off to review his game and prepare for the year ahead. He vowed to be more aggressive in his approach. How much had he thought about Federer?
"You think about it because you are trying to shoot for the best," Roddick said. "He has established himself as that in the last couple of years. Am I obsessed with it? Do I have pictures on my wall or something? No.
"I think you have to be self-motivated first and foremost. I'm not good enough to just worry about one guy. I have to worry about a whole lot of guys."
Hewitt has lost his past nine matches against Federer, stretching back to their epic Davis Cup semi-final in Melbourne in 2003. Last year's Australian Open brought out the best and worst of Hewitt, as he scrapped his way to the final against Safin. This year however, he finds himself in the same side of the draw as Federer with patchy lead-in form behind him and the same concerns about the court surface ahead.
Hewitt denies marriage and family have become a distraction, or that his appetite for a stoush has waned. "Once the bell rings, I'll be ready to go on Tuesday." But if he shapes up to Federer in a semi-final, it is hard to see Hewitt having a knock-out punch.
Which brings us back to Nalbandian.
Nalbandian's career has neatly overlapped with Federer's and of their 10 meetings, the Argentine has won six. His win against Federer in Shanghai came with an asterix attached; namely the ankle injury which put Federer on the sidelines for three weeks before the Masters Cup. For Nalbandian however, the confidence from that win has overflowed into the new tennis year.
"I feel I am still playing the 2005 season," Nalbandian said. "I still have a lot of confidence from that tournament. It made me feel a little bit different on court."
Nalbandian hasn't hit a ball in anger since Shanghai and his preparation for today's first round has not been ideal. He felt ill on the plane to Melbourne, was running a mild fever by the time he cleared customs and subsequently pulled out of the AAMI Classic at Kooyong, where he had planned to play three lead-in matches. Now he claims to be fully recovered.
Nalbandian is a tennis enigma. He is one of he most dangerous shot-makers in the game and can end a point from anywhere, on either side of his body. This was the Nalbandian who put an end to Ivan Ljubicic's hot run in Shanghai last November before outlasting an underdone Federer in the final. This is also the Nalbandian who came back from two sets down against Hewitt in last year's Australian Open to stretch the Australian to 10-8 in the fifth set and who then beat the Australian on grass in Sydney in a Davis Cup quarter-final in July.
At other times, Nalbandian has lacked the nerve to finish off an opponent. He has been a touring professional since 2000 and ranked in the world's top 10 for three years, yet has won only four ATP tournaments. He has made the quarter finals of the Australian Open three times without making it through to the last four. His one grand slam final appearance was in 2002 at Wimbledon against Hewitt when he was a virtual unknown.
Nalbandian, 24, is a year younger than Hewitt and believes there is plenty of time left to win a grand slam.
"The window is always open," Nalbandian said. "I know that if I play good I can beat anyone. I have to be prepared match by match and try to do my best all the time that I go out on court. If I play good, I have the windows open to win every match."
Rarely though, does an opportunity present in a grand slam as it has for Nalbandian at Melbourne Park. He is on the opposite side of the draw to Federer and on paper his quarter is the softest in the tournament.
If the bookies and pundits are right, then the tournament is only Federer's to win anyway. But just for a while, imagine it is someone else's. Now, is it David Nalbandian you see?