Nalbandian out to break South American drought at Aussie Open
By Robert Smith
MELBOURNE (AFP) - David Nalbandian will be bidding to become the first South American to capture the Australian Open in 27 years and he has one big thing going for him here over the next fortnight.
The powerful Argentine baseliner has a last-start win over raging tournament favourite Roger Federer, which will steel him with the belief that he can break through for his first Grand Slam title.
Nalbandian stunned the tennis world when he came from two sets down to overhaul world number one Federer in five sets and land the Masters Cup final in Shanghai last November.
Seemingly out of it after losing two tie-breakers, he outlasted the Swiss star to win 6-7 (4/7), 6-7 (11/13), 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7/3) after a draining four-and-a-half hours.
Nalbandian's sixth win against Federer also snapped his 35-match unbeaten streak and stopped him one victory short of equalling John McEnroe's 1984 season of 82-3.
That also ended a run of four defeats against the Swiss champion, but Nalbandian is one of the few players on the men's tour to brag a winning 6-4 record over Federer.
The two first met in the 1998 US Open junior boys' final, which Nalbandian won.
For his epic victory Nalbandian, 24, was crowned sportsman of the year in Argentina and told the awards ceremony in Buenos Aires last month: "For next year, one of the objectives is winning the Davis Cup. I also want to win a Grand Slam."
He will have to get over the virus that sidelined him at the Kooyong Classic here this week if he is to realise his dream.
His decision to miss the warm-up and rest and recover was taken as defending champion Marat Safin, world number two Rafael Nadal and eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi pulled out of the tournament with injuries.
Nalbandian knows this makes his chances of scoring a slam so much better.
If he can miss out on playing in Federer's top half of the draw then he will have a serious chance of getting through to the January 29 final.
The last South American to win the Open was Argentine Guillermo Vilas in 1979 and the last player from the region to make the semi-finals was Ecuador's Nicolas Lapentti in 1999, when he lost to Swede Thomas Enqvist.
Nalbandian has been a solid big tournament performer, reaching two semi-finals and five quarter-finals since being a runner-up to Australian Lleyton Hewitt in the 2002 Wimbledon final.
It was a strong 2005 for the super-fit Nalbandian. He finished in the top-10 for the third consecutive year and pulled off a prestige win over Hewitt to steer Argentina to victory over Australia in the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup.
Hewitt is the all-time most successful Australian Davis Cup player and for Nalbandian to beat him on grass in Australia was a tremendous achievement.
It was also a personal milestone.
Nalbandian has a prickly relationship with Hewitt after a feisty match where both players bumped into each other during a changeover at last year's Australian Open, and fans will be keen on a rematch.
"I felt that this was the biggest match of the series and I won it so easy so that makes me very happy. It's better that I beat him," Nalbandian said of his first win over Hewitt in four meetings.
Nalbandian, who sees himself as a rally driver after tennis, has the credentials to achieve a career best in Melbourne this year, if he can put himself into contention with a solid showing the first week.
Published : January 14, 2006