In order to get you excited for the upcoming Paris Masters, here is a look back at one match of probably the most random hot streak in recent history: David Nalbandián’s tear through Madrid and Paris in 2007. Not much is at play this year in Bercy, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll get something special, like what happened five years ago.
There is an annoying paradigm among tennis fans and journalists that somehow, only epic struggles are meant to be remembered. And it has to be a final. And it has to be at Wimbledon (OK, I’m exaggerating a bit). Any straight set match is automatically dismissed from any “best of the year” discussion. While many tightly contested straight setters full of excellence get left behind, a special kind of casualty results from this way of thinking: the virtuoso peformance, aka The Epic Beatdown, aka The God-Mode Demonstration. Usually people remember tournaments where somebody got hot, but the individual matches get forgotten, lumped into a pretty simplistic narrative.
If you follow tennis obsessively – and you probably do, since you’ve somehow landed on our site – you are familiar with the Nalbandián Magical Fall of 2007 legend, where the underachieving Argie went against his own tendencies and for one surreal month looked like the third best player on tour. Or the second best. Heck, he looked like the best men’s player at that particular moment. Most casual fans of tennis might have skipped this truly remarkable happening, only to learn about it at some point before or during the 2008 Australian Open, since Nalbandián was picked as one of the favorites (!!!) for the title. Their reaction was probably a variation of “Wait…what? Nalbandián? Really?”.
Why did casual tennis fans miss this? Simple: it happened during the Part of the Tennis Season that Shouldn’t Happen but Somehow Keeps Happening: the two plus months after the US Open. We all know the drill: guys and gals get tired, all four Slams are in the rearview mirror, and somehow they’re all expected to go out and do a tour around Asia and indoor arenas across Europe, pretending to care. It’s strange, and it’s nonsensical. However, there’s some good money to be made, and also, valuable ranking points. Hence, people show up.
And because we’re tennis junkies, we also show up and watch people play tennis in China, in Tokyo or in some godforsaken parking lot in Luxembourg. Thankfully, our
addiction dedication gets rewarded every once in a while by something truly special. Just like it happened five years ago, with a very unlikely protagonist.
Why unlikely? Well, please click here to see why. That’s Nalbandián’s playing activity for 2007. Notice something? Yep, it’s this:
Even though Nalbandián started the year in the top 10 (ranked 8th), his record in 2007 before arriving in Madrid was a dismal (for his talents) 19-18, with no titles. No finals. No semifinals, even. The native of Córdoba was barely over .500. Because this is David Nalbandián we’re talking about, you’re probably assuming he got injured at some point along the way and missed a big chunk of the season (he did miss everything after Barcelona and before the French Open). But believe it or not, he did manage to show up at the Slams and to seven Masters Series that year. He also managed some remarkable results, such as:
This (remember Round Robin?):
And my personal favorite, this:
You get the point. David Nalbandián wasn’t very good in 2007. Far from good. Barely mediocre. Probably injury-addled. But for a talented 25 year-old guy in what should have been his prime, his results that year left a lot to be desired.
What’s worse, Nalbandián arrived in Madrid with the added pressure of having to defend Finalist points; Federer waxed him in the final the year before. Even after such a dismal season, Nalbandián had managed to stay in the top 25. However, another craptacular showing in Madrid would’ve meant probably slipping out of the top 30. Or top 40.
We know what happened next. And if you don’t, here’s a visual aid:
Notice how Nalbandián managed to beat the top 3 players in the ATP at the moment in consecutive rounds. Heck, he trashed Nadal in his own country. Straight-setted the recent US Open finalist and rising star Novak Djokovic. And somehow avenged his 2006 final loss to Federer, after getting breadsticked in the first set. But notice that R32 match. Nalbandián was down a set to Berdych – and might have been a set and a break if memory serves me right. Nalbandián found a way to gut out that win, and it was on. He didn’t lose another set on his way to the final. And won his first Masters Series shield.
Now, back then the schedule was a bit more nonsensical than these days, and they had a week off between two fall Masters Series. So Nalbandián went to Basel after Madrid, lost in the first round to Stan Wawrinka (because that’s something Nalbandián does even when he’s possessed by the Tennis Gods), and arrived in Paris with enough time to recover from his incredible week in Madrid.
And then this happened:
Yep. He beat Federer and Nadal in back-to-back Masters Series. What’s more, he met one or the other in both finals. And won both times.
However, we’re not here to talk about any of those Nalbandián-Nadal or Nalbandián-Federer matches. We’re here to discuss the match that left the loser saying this:
“I’m not sure I played a player as good as he is,” (player) said. “Even when I played (Roger) Federer six times I never felt that way.”
The mystery player is none other than Richard Gasquet, the then #13 player in the world and someone who had just gone through Tsonga, James Blake (ranked #7 at the time) and Andy Murray (ranked #12). He was playing at home and playing well (a rarity, I know). Yet he still got trashed 2 and 4. It should’ve been 2 and 2, but Gasquet came up with some incredible tennis of his own to get back one of the breaks in that second set.
Was Nalbandián as good as Gasquet hints at? Yes. Yes, he was. And thankfully, someone else out there agreed as well, and uploaded the video below to YouTube, giving it a simple title: “Nalbandián at his best @ Paris 2007”. Even better, the 7 minute video is all meat and no fat: whoever compiled this kept only the points for us to enjoy. And all the good ones, really.
So please, take 7 minutes and 27 seconds of your day to enjoy unbridled tennis excellence. It’s quite mesmerizing.
Here are some of my favorite moments:
– Right at the start you could see that Gasquet was in trouble: Nalbandián starts the match by yanking Gasquet from side to side, pushing him deep into his BH corner, and finishing him off with a beauty of a dropper.
– At 1-0 (0:42), Nalbandián goes for the kind of FH winner that you don’t normally see: instead of going for depth, he goes for a tricky angle: the ball bounces a few inches from the service line and the sideline, then goes away from the court like a slice serve from the deuce court. The second bounce is almost past the doubles alley.
– At 0-2, 30-15 on Gasquet’s serve (1:05), you can see the first of about four obscene cross-court backhand return winners by Nalbandián.
– The very next point (1:11) is a staple of the Nalbandián Folk Hero Story: a long rally turns into a short-lived contest of who hits the most outrageous angles. Midway through the rally, Nalbandián hits an angled FH that lands about a foot short from the service line, but forces Gasquet to hit his ensuing angled FH from way outside the court. The Frenchman is actually standing just in front of the “Gerflor” writing on the court. Past the doubles alley. Of course, this is the objective of Nalbandián’s shot: yank Gasquet far away from the court so he can have plenty of real estate to finish off the point. Which Nalbandián does, with a down-the-line forehand winner.
– At break point later in that game (1:40), Gasquet kinda frames a backhand, which puts a crazy angle on it. Nalbandián goes for an extremely low-percentage down-the-line forehand…and is supremely annoyed when he hits it into the net. But pause the video at 1:42 and look at where he’s standing. Yep – behind the chair umpire, and quite close to a bench.
– At 1:43 a fun rally ends with a silly Gasquet response to a pretty bad dropper by Nalbandián. Result: Gasquet gets humiliated by a beauty of a lob. Because that’s what happens to you in this match.
– At 2:18 you can see a pretty great Gasquet backhand winner from the middle of the court and into Nalbandián’s forehand corner. Supremely difficult shot to hit, but this is Richard Gasquet, so we’ve seen that before. This is just to illustrate that Gasquet was not sucking in this match. At all.
– At 2:29 and 0-15, we have the second of Nalbandián’s obscene cross-court backhand return winners. And the very next point we see is break point, where Nalbandián decides to mix it up by hitting a down-the-line backhand return winner.
– You’ll notice that sprinkled here and there are some pretty great Nalbandián aces. Aces. You read that right. Nalbandián never hit his forehand or served as well as he did in this month-long stretch.
– At 4:00, another example of a cross-court forehand angled winner. This one is a beauty. You can’t see anybody getting to this shot. It’s paradigm-shattering, really. Nobody finishes with the forehand like that, as if it were the easiest thing. And it sets up break point at 1-all in the 2nd set. Which he then takes with a magnificent combination of cross-court backhands. The second one, which goes for a winner, replicates the angle used in the previous forehand. There’s nothing Nalbandián couldn’t do on this day.
– At 4:14, 2-1, 15-all, a magnificent rally. Gasquet survives the first angled exchange on the backhand side, but not the second. The cross-court angled forehand that Nalbandián hits near the end of the rally should’ve ended it – it was that good. But Gasquet (remember, he wasn’t sucking) somehow got to it, forcing Nalbandián to finish him off with a tricky down-the-line backhand. The forehand was just outrageous, though.
– There is not much more you can say after Nalbandián’s third cross-court backhand return winner at 5:25, other than THAT WAS FREAKING CRAZY. Obscene. Orgasmic. Just impossible to deal with. He absolutely crushes that ball…from the doubles alley. Ridiculous. That sets up break point to go up two breaks, and an overwhelming point later, Nalbandián is up 4-1 in the second. He is absolutely possessed.
– Yet another obscene cross-court backhand return winner. Hit from the doubles alley. These are not bad serves that Nalbandián is killing. Poor Gasquet.
– The last minute of the video is quite fun. Gasquet wins a long rally by guessing right on a pass, and the crowd erupts. He carries that momentum into the 5-2 game, where after some pretty incredible shots, he actually breaks Nalbandián. Again, Gasquet was not sucking that day. He then carries that momentum into the 5-4 game, where he hits an obscene Gasquet-trademark down-the-line backhand to go up 0-30 on Nalbandián’s serve. They then play a fantastic point, started by a blistering Gasquet return, which ends with yet another angled forehand exchange that Nalbandián wins. He’s angry now, probably at the crowd. Then again, we know a reason is merely optional for Nalbandián to get angry on a tennis court.. A couple of great serves come after that, and it’s over.
This match lasted all of 68 minutes. It was a masterclass that was as rare as it was mindblowing. After the match Nalbandián would say that he was playing about as well as he was back in the Shanghai Masters’ Cup final in 2005, when he beat Federer in a classic five setter. And he was partly right. I think he was better here.
The narrative about this Nalbandián Magical Fall of 2007 is that the top guys were tired, and Nalbandián benefitted from being mediocre all year, since it had left him fresh to run rampant. Which is partly true. However, you still have to manage a level of tennis that is truly special to win two Masters Series in a row, particularly from Nalbandián’s position – no byes for him on either tournament, and he had to play Federer or Nadal in both Finals. In finals, too. Maybe the explanation is simpler: a supremely talented individual in his physical prime finally got his act together. Everything worked: the movement, the serve, the forehand, the backhand, the droppers, the volleys, the return. There were no holes for anybody to exploit.
Maybe that’s why Gasquet said what he said. In the 68 minute masterclass he received, he saw it all: great serves. Great returns, off both wings. Amazing court coverage. Incredible defense from both wings. Incredible counterpunching. Amazing feel for touch shots. And he saw angles that he didn’t even knew were there. Nalbandián made the tennis court look fat that day. Or rather, he saw the court as if it were wider than anybody knew.
It’s funny that even after winning two Masters Series, Nalbandián didn’t make it to that year’s Masters’ Cup. Think about it. He was so bad before Madrid that not even a thousand points (back then) got him into the final showdown. Which cast a weird shadow over that event, since many felt the best tennis player at that particular time wasn’t in the event that’s supposed to showcase the eight best male tennis players in the world. And then came all the talk about how Nalbandián was obviously one of the big favorites to win the Australian Open, thus ending his tenure as “The Most Talented Player Never To Win A Grand Slam” (a title that he lost to Andy Murray, but which has since returned to him given the events at Flushing Meadows this year). Many believed this would happen. Heck, I believed this would happen.
It didn’t. It wasn’t even close.
If you don’t remember what transpired in Australia, it’s a short, sad story. Nalbandián played the recently retired Juan Carlos Ferrero in the third round. I repeat, Third Round. He managed to win only six games over three sets, losing 1-6, 2-6, 3-6 in an hour and forty three minutes. Ferrero then lost to Ferrer in the next round and ended the year with a less than impressive 21-15 record. So there.
Five years have passed since Nalbandián’s magical month, and while he got to keep the trophies and the nice cash for winning those two Masters Series (he never made a M1000 final again), we at least have YouTube videos like the one above to remind us of that brief time when David Nalbandián was the best male tennis player in the world.
Was it a tease? Yep, it ended up being one. But my, what a glorious tease it was.