He Just Can’t Win

Stockholm, First Round

Nalbandian d. Malisse, 4/6 7/6 7/6

Nine years ago David Nalbandian and Xavier Malisse met in the semifinal of what is widely considered to be the most dreary Wimbledon in living memory, a judgement derived in large part from the fact that they both featured in the final four. (The other part of the reason is that the tournament was little short of a gimme for world No.1 Lleyton Hewitt, which should never be said of any major.)

Naturally, our regard for Wimbledon 2002 would have seen a sharp revision upwards had either of those players gone on to forge stellar careers. The prevailing memory of drudging inevitability and pedestrian upsets would have been softened had it somehow portended mastery to come. It didn’t, of course, though to say so is to subscribe to the popular view of Nalbandian as a feckless wastrel. I have always found this view a little pernicious, since compared to most, he has achieved a lot, and would certainly have achieved more had he chosen his era more carefully. The fact that he can beat everyone occasionally does not mean he can beat anyone at will, and if his legendary 2007 indoor season enhanced his legend, it probably harmed his reputation in the long run. As for Malisse, he really is a feckless wastrel, and would be in any era. He is something like what Nalbandian would have been if he really had won nothing, if the Argentine’s essential streakiness had been condensed still further, such that his best tennis lasted not weeks, but hours.

Sadly, minutes was about the extent of it tonight in Stockholm. Neither player played well at the same time, and neither sustained their form for long. Malisse played better at the start, but Nalbandian was superior at the very end, which is when it matters, I suppose. Tennis matches are often decided by whoever wins the final point. It’s a funny sport that way. Despite all of that, it was a tremendously absorbing contest, although it is misleading to say you just never what was coming next. When Malisse moved ahead in the second set tiebreak, you just knew he was going to blow it. The same went for Nalbandian when he served for the match in the third. He also saved a couple of match points, most excitingly of all, but also most revealingly. Both men were striking the ball well by this moment, although it was Nalbandian who retained a clear head – his genius has always been for thoughtful point construction – while Malisse grew aimlessly careful, suddenly going against type. It cost the Belgian the match . . . perhaps. Usually he is more reckless, because more frustrated, and the result is much the same. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

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