Did someone throw the switch back to 2005? How else could we even think of seeing Nalbandian in a final of a major tournament (and Kiefer in a semi)? That’s the really surprising part of his victory over Roger at the Madrid Masters today. After all, the guy had beaten Fed six times before. (The last time, famously, was at the 2005 Masters Cup in Shanghai, where Nalby came back from two sets down to best Roger in five.) Since then, he’s lost to the No.1 four times in a row, although I still remember how close he came to taking Rog out of the 2006 French Open before suddenly retiring in the third set of their match. So it’s not the biggest upset in the world, but far, far different from that “inevitable” meeting with Djoky or Nadal that everyone expected.
So where does this leave those other two? Obviously Djokovic is consistently overplaying – he’s predictably worn down at the end of every tournament. We’ll see how he holds up in Paris. Hopefully he’ll wise up next year, and stop making bizarre decisions like playing Vienna the week before Madrid.
The person I’m really worried about is Nadal. Watching him play poorly is like witnessing an injured animal flail around in the dirt. It’s just not right. When Roger flames out – like I’d argue he did today in the final set – it’s frustrating, but not pathetic (except for last year’s French Open!) To be totally cliche about it, it’s like watching a piece of precision-engineered machinery get its clockwork twisted up (sorry, I couldn’t avoid the Swiss timepiece comparison.) Nadal, however, is like an injured thoroughbred, and I’m scared those knees might put him out to pasture.
From a fan’s perspective, I’ve now progressed to the point where I enjoy seeing my hero tested. It really does make Roger’s victories more sweet in the end. Given the issues facing D. and N., it’s exciting that Nalbandian’s come forward to play the only real game on the ATP tour: Who can challenge Roger Federer?
Right now I’m thinking about Roger’s last U.S. Open press conference. Often the tennis oracle, his post-victory remarks are going to set the tone into 2008:
“New guys challenging me – this is my biggest motivation out there. Seeing them challenging me, and then beating them in the finals . . .No. 2, No. 3 – it doesn’t matter much. It’s No. 1 that matters.”
We’ll see what Nalbandian, an “old guy” at 25, has to say about that.