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What Next For Nalbandian?

Australian Open 2008

David NalbandianGetty ImagesDavid Nalbandian closed 2007 with a pair of ATP Masters Series titles.

After years of under delivering on his vast potential, David Nalbandian is ready to live up to his promise.

We're in Villa del Dique, a small town of around 2,800 people in Cordoba, Argentina. David Nalbandian has interrupted his three-week holiday to attend an unusual press conference: He has been invited by Luis Santos, his first tennis coach, to deliver a speech to 100 children, revealing his secrets of how to beat both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

A jovial Nalbandian also relates how he came to be a tennis player. The tale is one of an undecided boy who played soccer when tennis bored him, who enjoyed watching rally car competitions in his hometown, but who later learned that he could make a career by wielding a racquet. "When I was 11, I would switch between tennis and other sports," Nalbandian recalls. "Three years later, I would be playing for four hours against older people. I was a total tennis fan. Today, I just practise for an hour and a half, but focusing on what I need to improve. Those are different stages in your career."

Suddenly, a girl stands up and raises her voice to ask a crucial question: "Next year, are you going to be focused only on tennis?" Grinning, Nalbandian promptly answers: "Yes, as always." The room erupts with laughter.

As someone who until recently had relatively little to show for his prodigious talent, the response was like a bittersweet joke. Despite finishing no lower than No. 12 for five consecutive years between 2002-06, the Argentine had won just five ATP titles, with his 2005 Tennis Masters Cup final triumph over an injured Roger Federer his only victory at Masters Series or Grand Slam level. He reached the Wimbledon final in 2002 and a year later held match point against eventual champion Andy Roddick in the US Open semifinals, but his game that promised so much had delivered so little in terms of hard results.

That is why 2007 was shaping as such a bitter season for Nalbandian, who at 25, should have been hitting his peak. In mid October, with just three weeks to play before his miserable season was over, Nalbandian came into ATP Masters Series Madrid at No. 25 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings after reaching just one quarterfinal (Barcelona) all year.

But in one of the most dramatic performances in recent memory, Nalbandian became the first player to defeat World No. 1 Roger Federer and World No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the same tournament on two occasions en route to winning back-to-back ATP Masters Series titles in Madrid and Paris and finishing the year inside the Top 10 (at No. 9) for the fifth straight year. To the relief of all eight competitors at Tennis Masters Cup, Nalbandian missed a place in Shanghai by one spot. "I don't know what the hell he's been doing all the other tournaments," Federer quipped.

So which David Nalbandian will show up in 2008: the one who over promises, or the one who over delivers? Certainly the goals are lofty, starting with a quest to break the Grand Slam domination of Federer and Nadal, who have shared the past 11 majors since Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open after saving match point against Federer in the semifinals.

"My first Grand Slam, an Olympic medal in Beijing and the Davis Cup," Nalbandian says of his ambitious hit-list for 2008. "Each one represents a different satisfaction - the first one, rather individual; the others would mean to leave my mark on the sport's history in Argentina.

Nalbandian, who turned 26 on January 1, is more tentative assessing his chances to become No.1, but still brings the subject to the table. "I'll go for it, no doubt. Of course, it's extremely difficult. What Federer does is out of this world, winning almost every tournament he plays. But at least I will say I'm going to try."

Spaniard Alex Corretja, another former Tennis Masters Cup champion, certainly sees further improvement for Nalbandian in 2008. "The creativity Nalbandian shows on court is astonishing. Next year, he should at least be in the Top 5." [Nalbandian has never finished in the year-end Top 5. Indeed, he has finished higher than No. 8 just once - in 2005 when he ended at No. 6.].

Martin Jaite, Nalbandian's coach and a former top-tenner, supports the bid for Federer-esque goals. "He's motivated, and we all know motivation is the key for his success. He's seeking glory, he wants to prove he can fight for the top of the rankings. I find him more mature now. He's got to stay focused and the results will come."

The proof is there, ready to be found on the Internet. Reviews, reports, videos, you name it. Just type the words: "Nalbandian, Madrid" or "Nalbandian, Paris" and it will come. Not only did he beat Federer and Nadal twice, but also the hottest upcoming stars, such as Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych. The match against Berdych was a turning point, as former player Brad Gilbert pointed out in Paris. "It's incredible how a single match can turn over a whole career. David was losing 6-4, 4-0, but fought, eventually won in three sets and see what happened afterwards."

Looking for what went wrong in the first 10 months of 2007, Nalbandian and his team identified mistakes that were made at the end of 2006, when he did not allow sufficient time to rest, which led to knee and back injuries. "After the Masters Cup and the Davis Cup final, he played a couple of exhibition matches he shouldn't have. Those were little mistakes we made," explains Diego Rodriguez, Nalbandian's physiotherapist.

Nalbandian's appointment as Jaite as his coach last August, after an extended period of working solo, looks anything but a mistake at this point. Jaite said he could see Nalbandian's game begin to turn around at the US Open, where he suffered a five-set loss to eventual semifinalist Ferrer in the third round. "He held one match point there; who knows what could have happened," says Jaite. "I always tell David that we achieved the goals sooner than I thought - I was expecting this for March -because he wanted to do it. It was his will."

Jaite helped him change his service motion: Nalbandian now tosses the ball forward and serves more aggressively. He's also improved his physical condition. "He lost three kilos since August, but the scale is not the most important thing; it's the relationship between fat and muscle. The first one decreased, the latter did the opposite," adds his trainer, Fernando Cao.

"Motivation is my biggest strength," says Nalbandian. "When I'm confident, I know I can beat anybody; if I'm mentally tired, my level drops."

'Anybody' includes the always-fearsome Federer, a player Nalbandian is not afraid to face. "I know him since we were juniors. I guess I don't pay him the same respect as everyone does," he explains. Nalbandian beat Federer in the 1998 US Open junior final, but the Swiss took revenge that year at the Orange Bowl semifinals, to end as the junior World No. 1.

"Of course, I know I must play not a perfect match, but better, maybe 11 points [out of 10], to beat him," Nalbandian reckons. That is what happened in Madrid and Paris: a mixture of sizzling returns, sharp serves, angles, backhand winners and determination that caught Federer off-guard. "He's so dominant from the baseline, it was tough to adjust," said Federer after Paris. "It's frustrating to be beaten twice by the same player. I was able to turn our head-to-head around, but now we are even."

The history of their meetings shows eight wins each, with Nalbandian winning the first five, Federer taking the lead with eight victories out of the next nine (the only loss coming in the thrilling 2005 Tennis Masters Cup final) and Nalbandian evening the score late last year.

"Federer doesn't like being attacked, he's not used to that. You have to strike first," explains Jaite. "For David, to reach the No. 1 is not an impossible task, but he needs consistency, which he doesn't have right now. We are going for it," he adds. "Nalbandian is training hard. At the same time, he is not the kind of player who needs to spend many hours on court to make progress. He is not a slave for tennis and needs to have distractions in order to succeed."

The list of distractions includes managing his own rally team, called Tango, and even playing the role of driver. In October, he made his debut behind the steering wheel in Andalgala, a small city of Catamarca, in north-east Argentina and followed with a classic cars' rally in the south of the country.

"I do what I like, I live life, and that helps. Maybe other people think the opposite. As every office guy or business man who has spare activities, I pay attention to tennis a suitable time; then I do other things," Nalbandian explains. He did bungee-jumping in Vienna three years ago and swam with sharks in Melbourne back in 2002.

"I don't give him orders, but I do tell him what I don't like," says Jaite. "Once, he went skiing and I told him it was dangerous, but he's free to do what he wants. He works that way."

"Nadal has a life outside tennis, he enjoys it; Federer, maybe not that much… But he's got a different personality. Our cultures are totally unlike each other," Nalbandian explains. "That doesn't mean I don't think big. I want to improve my results and leave a big mark on the sport."

Often labeled as one of the sport's biggest underachievers, Nalbandian now seems committed to embracing his destiny. Perhaps, when he returns to Villa del Dique later this year, he will be carrying a Grand Slam trophy or be wearing an Olympic medal. And he will share a laugh with the children once again.

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