Nalbandian thrives at all majors

Updated: May 31, 2004, 6:19 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- In a tennis world that increasingly demands specialization, David Nalbandian is a renaissance man of all courts.

Andre Agassi is the only active male player to have won all four Grand Slams. There are only two others who have reached at least the singles quarterfinals of the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- and their names are not Federer, Moya, Roddick, Kuerten, Coria, Henman, Ferrero or Hewitt.

Who are they: Nalbandian and Marat Safin, the tortured soul Nalbandian dismantled at the French Open in the fourth round Monday.

David Nalbandian
David Nalbandian plays well from anywhere on the court and is one of the most talented players on the ATP tour, Marat Safin said.

Safin, who was ravaged by bubbling blisters on both hands, was a 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 victim of Nalbandian, who played his best in three appearances at Roland Garros.

Nalbandian was the fourth player from Argentina to earn a berth in the quarterfinals, along with Gaston Gaudio, who defeated Igor Andreev 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, Guillermo Coria and Juan Ignacio Chela. This is uncharted territory for Argentina and because they are in different quarterfinals, incredibly, all four semifinalists could be Argentines.

"The game is pretty good," Safin said of Nalbandian. "All around, he can play anywhere. He can play volley, he can play from the baseline, he can serve. He has very good hands.

"He has great touch. He's one of the most talented people on ATP."

And while Coria remains the most likely to win here -- Tuesday's match with Carlos Moya is considered by many to be the de facto final -- Nalbandian is the most heavily decorated in Grand Slam tournaments.

In 2002, his first full year at the ATP level, Nalbandian reached the final on grass at Wimbledon at the age of 20. It was the first grass tournament of his professional career. Last year, he got to the quarterfinals in Australia and had a phenomenal run at the U.S. Open, beating Mark Philippoussis and Roger Federer before coming within a point in the semifinals of beating eventual champion Andy Roddick in a five-set thriller. This year, Nalbandian, reached the quarters again in the Australian Open, but lost to Federer, another eventual champion.

Now 22, Nalbandian has the power to thrive on hard courts, the aggressive verve to play well on Wimbledon's oh-so-slick grass and the infinite patience to succeed on clay. The French will always be difficult for Roddick, just as Federer has struggled at the U.S. Open. The clay-courters consistently have difficulty on grass.

Nalbandian is different. He won this year's Lemon Award from the French Open journalists for his sour disposition, but his game is thoroughly sweet. He can bang with the big boys; his ground strokes and serve have the requisite strength. And as Safin said, he also has finesse. Nalbandian's sense of geometry, the touch of his slices, particularly his fluid and surprising drop shots, can be breathtaking.

Despite the astonishing range his game displays, it is Nalbandian's mental toughness that separates him.

When he was 11 years old, Nalbandian made the pilgrimage to Buenos Aires, hundreds of miles from his home in the small mountain town of Unquillo. He was auditioning for a place in legendary four-time Grand Slam winner Guillermo Vilas' tennis academy and, frankly, he was awful. Nalbandian was playing on a faster surface than he was used to and he fell several times.

Vilas, however, saw something. He saw heart.

"You're in," he told Nalbandian.

His rise was swift. His ranking went from No. 248 in 2000 to No. 47 to No. 12 the year he stunned them at the All-England Club. He is currently No. 8 in the world, despite a wrist injury that limited his play after the Australian Open.

Nalbandian was 0-4 against Safin coming into the match, but the strapping Russian was weary after back-to-back five-set matches, to say nothing of his drawers-dropping episode against Felix Mantilla. More troublesome were the blisters that surfaced in his third-round match with Italian qualifier Potito Starace.

Safin is a prodigious talent -- he memorably defeated Pete Sampras in straight sets in the 2000 U.S. Open final -- but his head game has always been, well, a little loose. Nalbandian is as mentally tough as anyone on the Tour, and that wide disparity in concentration was ultimately the difference in the match.

Safin had a set point at 4-5 in the first, but Nalbandian hit a big serve outside and followed it with a nervy drop shot and escaped with the game. Serving at 6-5, he won at love, finishing with a majestic ace.

And although Safin managed to win the third set, he deteriorated quickly after that. He said he couldn't hit an effective forehand the last four games. Safin called for the trainer six games into the match and there were numerous visits after that to maintain the bandages on five different fingers.

Marat Safin
Blisters on both hands kept No. 1 Marat Safin from putting up a better fight in the end.

"I really suffered," Safin said later. "Unfortunately, I couldn't take my chances, couldn't concentrate myself.

"It's too many things in my head, I couldn't focus on him, and he was playing pretty good tennis."

Nalbandian said he's learned to play "a little quieter" on clay, a little less aggressive. He also said he tried to move Safin around the court because he knew he was tired. His drop shots, he said, were never better. He was pleased that his best tennis came in the fourth set, after Safin had gotten back in the match.

Nalbandian is a colorful character on the court. On Monday, he sported a bright orange shirt and his trademark broad white headband that barely contained his long light-brown hair. With his prominent proboscis and ears, he bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Ringo Starr.

His next opponent, three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten, has an even greater aura here.

"You never underestimate Guga," Nalbandian said in anticipation of Wednesday's match. "The crowd will be with him. I think that's absolutely understandable. Guga is a great player, and I think he deserves respect.

"I'm feeling very well. I really want to play this match. I think it's still a match I can win."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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