Continuing with my series on underachieving tennis players, I focus my attention on the ATP this time. To be honest, the moment I started to think about possible names of under-achievers in men’s tennis, my mind was instantly flooded with a sea of names.
I actually found it hard to restrict myself to just five players for this list. Does that mean the ladies make better use of their talent than the men? I think I could get a definitive answer to that question by just a cursory glance at the people around me, but I don’t really want to get into any sort of gender debate here, so let’s just get on with the list without further ado.
The tall, hulking Czech seemed destined for great things when he stopped the run of none other than Roger Federer at the 2004 Olympics and then went on to defeat Rafael Nadal over the next couple of years with something approaching regularity. Peter Bodo, the much-acclaimed and respected tennis journalist, once even wrote a post on the site www.tennis.com about how Berdych is the perfect prototype of the modern player, in physique as well as shotmaking ability.
Unfortunately for Berdych, consistency remains as elusive a quality for him as, say, diplomacy is for Marat Safin. A stray Masters’ title in Paris in 2006 and a few inspired performances in Davis Cup aside, Berdych has, through his wayward tennis, quashed almost all hopes of greatness that surrounded him when he first turned up on the pro tour.
Instead, he’s turned out to be nothing more than a journeyman player with the ability to occasionally spring a surprise or two in the early round of a Slam (or a Masters’ tournament, as his recent victory over Federer in Miami clearly demonstrates). Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Berdych to take a few tips from his Davis Cup colleague Radek Stepanek on how to make the most of the resources at one’s disposal.
2. Marcos Baghdatis
If Major tournaments were won solely on the basis of charm and style, then Marcos Baghdatis would have been a champion many times over. The Cypriot made a permanent mark for himself in the minds of tennis watchers with his inspired run to the finals of the 2006 Australian Open finals, but he’s pretty much done nothing since then other than putting on the pounds.
Of course, injuries have contributed significantly to the extended lulls in his career, but the man is definitely better than his current ranking of 30 suggests. He is only 24, so there’s still hope for a turnaround, but I wouldn’t put my money on it, particularly with all that extra flab hanging around that frame.
3. Gael Monfils
How ironical is it that the man with the most intimidating physique in men’s tennis seems perpetually afraid of imposing his will on the court and doggedly refuses to play attacking tennis? Perhaps the most athletic player ever seen in tennis history, Gael Monfils has so far continued the French tradition of producing eccentric, flamboyant tennis players who seem to care more about showmanship than winning matches.
Content to stand meters behind the baseline, Monfils has turned acrobatic defense into an art, regularly conjuring up spectacular gets and shots from seemingly impossible positions. But his ultra-defensive play often backfires alarmingly, reducing him to a clownish showman who, apparently, would rather wear himself out by running all day than step into the court and take charge of points.
The man has tremendous power and can perhaps even outmuscle the likes of Juan Martin Del Potro, but for some unknown reason he has so far in his career shown an unflinching reluctance to use that power. Someone needs to tell him that lapsing into moonball rallies is not going to cut it in today’s baseline-hugging, aggressive game.
The Frenchman was once dubbed ‘Baby Federer’ for his all-court brilliance, magical one-handed backhand (which is actually better than that of Federer) and his remarkable touch and feel for the ball. He achieved considerable success at the junior level, but somewhere along the line, he realized that the hopes of an entire nation rested on his slender shoulders.
Then it all came crashing down; the baby-faced artist learnt to crumble at the slightest sign of trouble, regularly choking away points, games, sets and matches to opponents who were nowhere close to his league in terms of talent. Unfortunately for tennis players, choking can become an unshakeable habit in the blink of an eye, and that simple fact has pretty much been responsible for the situation that we see today: at 23 years of age, Gasquet is a spectacularly gifted prodigy who has yet to reach a Grand Slam final. T
hrowing away leads of 2 sets-to-none has become almost a norm for him, and early career comparisons with Nadal, Federer and even Djokovic sound laughable now. Of course, staying away from shady females named Pamela would help too (Gasquet failed a drug test for cocaine last year becaus, he claims, traces of the substance entered his body when he kissed a woman going by the name of Pamela at a nightclub), but there’s no restraining the young and the restless, is there?
5. David Nalbandian
Ah, those angles. The portly Argentine can do so much with the ball and can generate such physics-defying angles on the court that it’s hard to not let your eyes pop out of your head when watching him in full flow. His game has got everything that perennial top-tenner Nikolay Davydenko’s game does, only with greater power and a better serve.
His two-handed backhand is such a formidable weapon that Nadal once openly admitted that he was ‘scared’ of hitting anything to that wing. What’s more telling, however, is that the comment came right after a match in which Nadal, having saved five match points in the second set, went on to hand Nalbandian a 6-0 whipping in the third.
The man who famously defeated both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in back-to-back tournaments in 2007 has frequently fallen apart on the biggest stages, having failed to reach a Slam final since that breakthrough run to the 2002 Wimbledon final.
It’s not like injuries have been particularly kind to him – he’s spent more time on the sidelines than playing matches in the last 2 years – but he definitely had his share of opportunities to clinch a Major title or two in all the time that Federer was merrily racking up his record haul. In fact, Nalbandian’s less than stellar play when put under pressure is one of the reasons why people claim that Federer’s dominance came in a ‘weak era’.
Can there be any worse indictment of your mental strength than the assertion that you didn’t provide enough resistance to your chief rival?
Honourable mention – Marat Safin
In case you’re wondering why Marat Safin doesn’t feature on the main list, my only defense is that the two Slam titles that Safin won put him in a slightly different league than the others on this list. Which is not to say, of course, that a measly bunch of two Major trophies is what a player as prodigiously gifted as Safin should rightfully have won over a decade-long career.
But he did defeat Sampras and Federer on his way to those victories at the US Open and Australian Open respectively, so I think we can cut him some slack, can’t we? God knows the enigmatic Russian doesn’t need any more disapproving tongue-lashings than he already gets.