7 July 2002
A week ago not one person in 10,000 would have heard of the unheralded Argentine player
He couldn’t keep the smile from his lips. “Did you know,” he was asked, that Guillermo Vilas, Argentina’s greatest player, once said that “grass is for cows?” The smile flashed. “That was then,” David Nalbandian replied, “this is now.”
It is one of the unlikeliest “nows” in the whole Wimbledon story. This is 20-year-old, Cordoba-born Nalbandian’s first senior tournament on grass.In the Open era no one has reached the final on their debut, let alone done so when not even rated their country’s No 1 player and so little known outside tennis’s inner sanctum that even a week ago not one person in 10,000 would have heard his name.
Now we sat in front of him, a radiantly tanned youth with shining blue eyes, a long, firm triangular nose and a fluffy growth of beard on his chin as if his hand had shaken too much to shave for the last couple of days. “Yes, I was very, very nervous,” he said in admirably effective if accented English, “last night, I could not sleep until very late. This morning I could not eat, I could hardly breathe, it was very terrible. Then 10 minutes before the match my mind became clear, I was calm, the ghosts went away.”
He told us how he was inspired by TV images of the young Boris Becker. How his grandfather had originally come from Armenia, how the family home was in Unquillo, a little town on the beautiful high Sierra 15 kilometres from Cordoba which itself is out in the mountains 1,000 kilometres to the west of Buenos Aires.
His father, Norberto, was a salesman who encouraged all three of his sons to play tennis. Young David showed talent enough to move from the hard courts of Unquill to the Cordoba Lawn Tenis (sic) Club where, inappropriately enough, they play on clay. Already there was the lawyer’s daughter, Clarissa Fernandez, who was to become a semi-finalist at Roland Garros and who, along with Guillermo Coria and Maria EmiliaSalerni, formed an ITF-backed touring quartet which has become the spearhead of a huge Argentinian tennis revival.
Salerni and Coria both won the Wimbledon Junior title. Nalbandian won the US Junior Open, the 1999 Wimbledon Junior Doubles with Coria and that same year had reached the semi-finals of the singles, only to misunderstand his changed start time and be defaulted. “So,” he was asked, “we can say that you have never yet been beaten on the Wimbledon grass?” The young man dealt with the question as well as he takes almost everything that is fired at him across the court. “No,” he said with triumphant understanding, “never beaten at Wimbledon, never.”
Today, of course, will be the biggest question. At 5ft 11in and almost 12½ st Nalbandian is the same height but some 20 lbs heavier than the senior Hewitt who, in 2000, was ranked at seven to Nalbandian’s 248. With the ATP coach, Gabriel Markus, taking over from Nalbandian’s brother Javier, the gap has closed. But Hewitt came in to Wimbledon as the world’s No 1, Nalbandian was still only 32, and his unlikely journey to the final has included a straights-sets victory over Sampras conqueror George Bastl, four sets against Wayne Arthurs, a five-set epic against Nicolas Lapentti and then that extraordinary two-day, five-set, weather and bizarre medical break extended encounter against Xavier Malisse.
Watching a refreshed Malisse coming back to square the match at two sets all in the gathering gloom of Friday evening was to feel that the early magic had departed from Nalbandian and Saturday would see the enigmatic Belgian whisk his pink ribboned pony-tail to victory. But Nalbandian stands a solid figure at the baseline and his mind is made of sterner stuff. Walking out to play the No 1 seed in the Wimbledon final when your feet have yet to touch the Centre Court turf is enough to freeze an angry tiger in its tracks. Pray that Nalbandian lets the sun shine through him.
“I think that match was very difficult,” he says of his one encounter with Hewitt when the young Australian beat him 6-4, 6-2 on clay in Barcelona. “He play very good that day. I think tomorrow is going to be a different match. “I think I am playing very good. In the final can happen many things. But it is also going to be a tough match.”
It will also be something which once a year Wimbledon watchers will find almost baffling by its unfamiliarity, a duel between baseliners where at its best the ball seems locked into almost laser-guided accuracy. Nalbandian doesn’t move with the jack-rabbit alacrity of Hewitt (who does?) but he was never run down against Malisse and some of the baseline rallies almost defied belief. Before Malisse ran up the white flag yesterday, flat out exchanges of 12, 14 even 17 strokes were commonplace. Nalbandian may be as callow as that fluffy chin, but he is a class act.
During the fortnight of The Championships the interview room has to listen to more boring psycho-babble than any set of walls should have to endure. Both questioners and questioned know the game too well to play interesting shots in public. Suddenly there is a fresh face, a new voice on the block. “I am so, so happy,” says David Nalbandian. “This is all like a dream but for me also it is a very important moment. I have a match to challenge.”
Back in Argentina they are still licking their wounds from their World Cup exit. It will be pictures on the front page, but it will not be on the main TV channel. They don’t know what they are missing.