There is a reassuring sense of familiarity about the annual tennis calendar. Seasons follow one after the other – hard court, clay, grass, hard court – in such a rhythmic manner that it ends up providing the very meter and beat we measure time with. For example, we have now seen eight clay seasons of Rafael Nadal dominance. Or, we will soon be entering Novak Djokovic’s fourth season of spring dominance on Australian hardcourts.
But just as we get comfortable with set patterns and player match-ups, come the news of sportsmen permanently retiring from the game. This, in its own way, provides us with its own measure of time – longer and less structured compared to the tennis calendar, but more poignant and personal to us. How did we develop as fans while the player matured over the course of his career? Did I really hate that player’s guts when I first saw him in action? Was that hairstyle really in fashion back when she started out?
As 2013 draws to a close, here is a personal look back at the prominent players who decided to exit from the never-ending cycle that is the international tennis calendar, this year.
David Nalbandian, talented all-court Argentine, called it quits this October with a persistent shoulder injury.
My first memory of Nalbandian is in the Wimbledon Chamionships of 2002, when he clashed with Lleyton Hewitt in the final. I remember being deeply disappointed with this match-up, coming as it did on the back of an all-time classic the preceding year, when Goran Ivanisevic had kept his date with Wimbledon destiny over Patrick Rafter in an epic encounter in the final. This time, however, there was an Australian grinder pummeling what seemed to be a tubby, Argentine baseliner into submission, on a surface where neither player seemed a natural fit.
But over the years, Nalbandian forced me to change my perceptions about him. He always remained slightly tubbier than a top-level sportsman should be, but his all-surface, all-court game won me over.
Throughout his career, he remained a threat to the top players on his day. He can boast of the rare honour of having beaten Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer in succession to win at Madrid in 2007. He can be proud of the one season-ending championship he won in 2005, coming from two sets down to beat Federer in the final. He will count among his greatest achievements the feat of having led Argentina to the Davis Cup final on three occasions, albeit without having secured the trophy even once.
And therein, might lie the essence of Nalbandian’s career. Of having come close to triumph on numerous occasions without quite managing the last step, of having threatened with his talents to accomplish a lot more than what he ended up doing. Add to that, his fair share of controversies, including clashes with junior countryman Juan Martin del Potro and his disqualification from Queens in 2012 for causing injury to a linesman, and we have the picture of a frustrated, volatile genius. In the end, I would like to think of his legacy in terms of what is commonly mentioned about him – one of the greatest players never to win a major.
Highest Ranking – 3 (2006)
No. of ATP Singles titles - 11
Best Grand Slam Performance – Wimbledon, 2002 (Final)