From Novice To Centre Court: Nalbandian's Magical Grass-Court Debut
David Nalbandian speaks pensively and intensely. Although it’s been 18 years since he reached the Wimbledon final in his first main draw appearance at the event, the Cordoba native knows it was a turning point for him. When the Argentine arrived at the All England Club, he had never played a tour-level match on grass. Despite being inside the Top 40 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, he was still finding his feet.
“I remember that we arrived there without any great expectations. [It was] my first ATP Tour tournament on grass. We had trained for a week in Argentina, in Hurlingham, and it wasn’t going well,” the former World No. 3 told ATPTour.com.
But the Argentine had some prior grass-court success to lean on. He won the Wimbledon boys’ doubles titles three years earlier with Guillermo Coria and was a semi-finalist in the boys’ singles event before losing via walkover after he no-showed due to confusion over the start time of his match.
Just over two weeks after his difficult training sessions in Hurlingham, Nalbandian’s negative feelings were long removed after accomplishing a first among Argentine men. He played in the singles final, where he would lose to Australian Lleyton Hewitt 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and 56 minutes.
“When I got there, I wasn’t feeling great. I was still returning badly... But as the matches went by, I gradually began to feel more comfortable,” Nalbandian recalled. “I really was surprised with how easily I started to feel better and better.”
He moved past Spaniard David Sanchez and Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in his first two rounds. Nalbandian admitted that he was “lucky to play against opponents who played from the baseline, so I was able to have rallies and find my rhythm.”
Nalbandian’s next match would have been against seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras, but the American surprisingly lost to Swiss lucky loser George Bastl. Emboldened by his kinder draw. he swept past Bastl and shook off the tricky Australian Wayne Arthurs to become the first Argentine Wimbledon quarter-finalist since Guillermo Vilas (1975-1976).
“After the first week, I started to feel that I could win all the matches, even the most difficult ones,” Nalbandian said. “It was a change in mindset. It didn’t matter what their ranking was. I felt that I could be a favourite for the rest of the tournament.
“My route to the final was unusual. I never had to play on Centre Court. It rained a lot the second week and there were rescheduled matches. I was always on the outer courts and I only played on Court 1 in the semi-final.”
Nalbandian made his Centre Court debut in the final against Hewitt. The atmosphere and the occasion were too much for the Argentine and he never fully relaxed against his in-form opponent.
“It was quite a thing to reach the final without having set foot on Centre Court. I think I was the only one they let warm up there before the match just to see how it was,” Nalbandian said. “Wimbledon’s Centre Court is pure history. It’s incredible for any tennis player. I think not having been on it or played a match there didn’t help me in terms of nerves and facing the situation at such an early age. Hewitt was World No. 1 and an experienced grass player, or at least much more used to it.”
Despite the defeat, Nalbandian burst into the highest echelon of the sport and sent a warning message to the Tour that his journey was just beginning. He would go on to win 11 ATP Tour titles and reach his career-high ranking of No. 3 in 2006.
“It was a change in quality in my game, my ranking, my responsibility as a player and, above all, my confidence. It was knowing that I was ready to square up against the biggest players, even though I was young,” Nalbandian said. “My runner-up trophy is in a room where I have all the other trophies. I also kept the clothes and the racquet. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I need to rummage through and see where they are!”