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Nalbandian's ready for his close-up

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After shocking the mighty Roger Federer for the biggest win of his career in the Masters Cup final two weeks ago, gritty Argentine David Nalbandian would now like to start winning some Grand Slam hardware on the ATP.

Nalbandian has always been a quality player on the tour, but he had yet to produce that huge victory, despite owning a winning record against the amazing Federer.

Currently a career-high No. 6 in the world, Nalbandian's previous best big- time result was a runner-up finish to Aussie Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon 2002.

The 5-foot-11 return of serve guru has, however, produced some fairly consistent results at the Slams, especially this year, going 15-4 at the majors, including trips to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Oddly enough, the Argentine star, who grew up on hard and clay courts in Cordoba, is a super 13-3 on the grass courts at Wimbledon and has reached at least the fourth round in all three of his trips to the venerable All England Club, including the '02 title bout.

Nalbandian, who will turn 24 on New Year's Day, has secured only four titles (in 11 finals) on the ATP, with the biggest one coming in Shanghai, where David outlasted Goliath (Federer) in an epic five-setter at the spanking-new Qi Zhong Stadium after dropping the first two sets via tiebreaks against the supreme Swiss.

The amazing victory halted the Argentine's personal four-match losing streak at the hands of Federer, who had beaten Nalbandian in round-robin play just seven days earlier at the lucrative season-ending tournament. Federer had won four straight against the gaucho (from 2003-05) after Nalbandian captured their first five career meetings on the circuit (from 2002-03). And just about every time the two stars lock horns it comes at a big event, with nine of their 10 clashes coming at Grand Slams, the Masters Cup or Masters Series tourneys.

Is Nalbandian now prepared to make his breakthrough at a major?

David Nalbandian
David Nalbandian poses with the coveted Tennis Masters Cup trophy.
He's reached a trio of quarterfinals in Melbourne; he's been a semifinalist at Roland Garros; he appeared in the Wimby finale three years ago; and landed in a U.S. Open semi in 2003.

I'd say he's been knockin' on the door.

Nalbandian's a solid 49-16 for his career at the Slams and is clearly a threat on any surface, whether it be hardcourt, clay or grass.

FYI, as good as the tenacious Nalbandian has been, he was a pedestrian 8-8 at Masters Series events in '05.

As a junior, a promising Nalbandian compiled outstanding results, including a victory over Federer in a U.S. Open final.

How 'bout that!

When Nalbandian stunned Federer in Shanghai two weeks back, he halted the Swiss' overall 35-match winning streak; stopped the Fed's 14-match winning string at the Masters Cup; and prevented the Swiss from capturing a 25th straight victory in a final. Federer (81-4) was also trying to tie John McEnroe's record 82-3 season from back in 1984.

Originally, the six-year-pro Nalbandian failed to qualify for Shanghai, but due to a rash of withdrawals, specifically one by Andy Roddick, the Argentine was able to join the elite eight-man fray. The Wimbledon runner-up Roddick was joined on the Masters Cup sidelines by French Open champion Rafael Nadal, the Aussie Open runner-up Hewitt, Aussie Open titlist Marat Safin and U.S. Open finalist Andre Agassi, who played, and lost, one match in Shanghai before pulling out with an injury.

Nalbandian, who has often battled injuries in his young career, can be a mainstay in the top five is he can remain healthy. But that's a big if. He's been a consistent member of the top 10 over the last three years, finishing ninth in 2004 and eighth in 2003.

The scrappy Nalbandian has certainly shot to the top of the strong pack of Argentines, which includes fellow top-50 members such as 2004 French Open champion Gaston Gaudio, '04 Roland Garros runner-up Guillermo Coria, 2005 French Open finalist Mariano Puerta, as well as sluggers like Juan Ignacio Chela and Jose Acasuso.

Nalbandian received a hero's welcome last week, as he was escorted by a caravan to his birth city of Unquillo, which is located in the Cordoban mountains.

"This victory is for you," he said. "The people always accompany me and, for that, I am eternally grateful to Unquillo and all the Argentines who support me."

Cordoban governor Jos? Manuel de la Sota paid a visit and said: "We have a grand master who is called David Nalbandian."

Grand master might be pushing it a bit, but Nalbandian will certainly savor his most-recent performance until the 2006 season gets underway in January.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley


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