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The pendulum swings

Nalbandian back on top of the world; the WTA's woes

Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2007 10:51AM; Updated: Wednesday October 24, 2007 11:19AM
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David Nalbandian made a clean sweep of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to win the Madrid Masters title.
David Nalbandian made a clean sweep of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to win the Madrid Masters title.
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I suggest the title for this week's mailbag be simply "Nalbandian." A couple months ago, we were raining praise on Novak Djokovic for accomplishing an amazing feat when he beat David Nalbandian, Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer consecutively to win the Rogers Cup.

This week, Nalbandian surpasses that accomplishment. He is lower-ranked than Djokovic when he pulled this off, and Nalbandian's form has been lacking. He goes from being a locker-room Djoke for the shape of his belly to beating the top three players in the world consecutively. Add to that he beats Djokovic in the process who had done a Nalbandian impression at the U.S. Open by sticking his belly out (Djoke's on him), and it's an amazing result.

Nalbandian has too much game for the results he has been getting lately. Maybe his pride was hurt, and it motivated him to find his form. Let's hope this is a turning point, and that Nalbandian can get back to challenging for majors.
-- Sean, Tallahassee, Fla.

Let's first stop and take a moment to discuss the strange and fairly unique rhythms of tennis. It is, undeniably, a cruel sport, not least because all but one player ends the week on a losing streak. But tennis can also provide something darn near close to instant gratification.

Consider Nalbandian, whose career was in the porcelain depository 10 days ago. Here's a guy who had struggled to win half his matches this year. Suddenly he turns in a week of peerless tennis and -- apart from being nearly half a million dollars richer -- his career appears to be back on track. Hard to think of another sport where fortunes can change for the better so quickly.

This is precisely why we get burned time and again when we write players off. Doesn't matter how lousily you've played to date. Go into a "zone" for seven matches and suddenly you're a Grand Slam champion.

As for Nalbandian, in particular, this result was a long time coming. His story, in fact, is a lot like the discussion of last week's heroine, Elena Dementieva. Here's a guy who looked like a future world beater a few years back. By 21 he had been in the latter rounds of each Slam and had settled comfortably in the top. His game wasn't particularly flashy or inspiring, but he seemed to do everything well and was nearly indifferent to surface.

Then a few things happened. Federer -- whom he had always mastered going back to their days in the juniors -- came along. Nalbandian lost his father and, with it, some of his passion. (You'll recall his remark about losing at Wimbledon wasn't so bad because it afforded him to watch the World Cup.)

He suffered a series of nagging injuries. His confidence started to crack. His gut resembled the kind of swollen thing you'd see at the O'Hare food court. He fell not just from the top five or top 10 but outside the top 20. He was too talented for this decline and you figured eventually he would reverse course.

Can he "get back to challenging for majors," as Sean suggests? Sure. And not simply because he's only in his 20s or because he now has three months to improve his conditioning or because of this jolt of confidence. He can challenge for majors because he plays tennis, a sport that affords every half decent player a chance to conjure their best stuff for two magical weeks and suddenly become a champion.

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