I Know You
March 28, 2010 -- In the big scheme of things, twenty-five years of history isn't much. But that's how long ago Butch Buchholz established this tournament in South Florida. Since its inception, and through the sponsorship changes, history has recorded a skyrocketing growth of attendance, venue size, player commitments, and prize money. Many say the Sony Ericsson Open, its name since 2001, along with its sisterly spring precursor tournament, the BNP Paribas in Indian Wells, are shallow breaths away from the passion and excitement of a Major.
To prove the worth of that comparison, Rafael Nadal and David Nalbandian dazzled fans in this afternoon's featured match on Stadium Court. Their tennis match history had marked their territories. Nalbandian stood tall at 2-1, head to head. Their 2009 encounter in Indian Wells gave Nadal his one victory.
It was a doozie.
Rafael Nadal saved five match points that evening in their round of sixteen encounter. The chilly desert air had sent most fans home for this final match of the day. The media was thin, too.
Nalbandian was on the brink of perfection -- going three for three against the Spaniard. The Argentine's shear strength and shot making overwhelmed Rafa. But then, Nadal reversed course and did what he does the very best of any player on the ATP tour -- compete. Late night sports entertainment couldn't get any better than what stalwart fans witnessed, as Rafael Nadal erased each of those five match points to turn this face-off on its head.
Nadal stole the second set tiebreak, shaking Nalbandian's foundation -- his mind. Disturbed beyond belief, he lost the final set at love.
Today's victory for Nadal -- 67 (8) 62 62 -- evens the playing court for them.
Since that thriller in the southern California desert, both men have had their share of injuries. Nadal's knees sidelined him and sent his ranking to #4 in the world. (On Monday he will reclaim #3 spot.) Nalbandian's right hip fell apart and was put back together through surgery and months of rehabilitation. His ranking dropped to #130 in the world. He appeared here at Crandon Park, after securing a wildcard from the tournament.
Whether each man sought revenge today or point-by-point confidence building was unclear. However, these two friends played their hearts out to the delight of partisan fans that represented home countries of Argentina and Spain.
"David is a very complete player," Nadal said. "He's a close friend of mine. He is talent, no? He can make very difficult things very easy. When he's playing at his best he makes you feel like you are nothing in the middle of the court, no?"
Rafa went up an early break in the first set. People felt the tone shift. But after a lengthy rally of at least twenty-five shots Nadal double faulted and gifted the game to Nalbandian. The set was even.
Nadal engaged his rip-snorting grit, then, coming up with aces and passing shots on his forehand and backhand sides. He out dinked Nalbandian, leaving him flabbergasted at the net once as he watched a precisely feathered ball travel at an extreme cross-court angle for a winner.
The only prudent way to end the set was in a tiebreaker. After letting two set point opportunities pass him by, David Nalbandian finally connected on a forehand winner and closed it out 10/8. Nadal's crucial double fault early in the tiebreak plus an awkward backhand slice error were unfortunate pitfalls of the deciding breaker.
"When you go another time on court against one player with his talent, you are always a little bit scared," Nadal began. "I started the match playing pretty well, really good. And, yeah, he has the break back, and in the tiebreak I have a 5-4 and I did amazing double fault by two meters."
Fans cheered over the next two sets as blistering winners were countered with sexy, sneaky passes. Nadal's spirits rose with each positive point. Nalbandian retaliated by taking the ball earlier, rocking the Spaniard's world.
Tiny steps forward. Tiny steps back. Slowly history was written.
"After that [first set], you know, the match was close," Nadal began. "But I think having a long first set for everything was better for me than for him, no?"
Nalbandian's steady and high-level shot making evaded the Argentine slowly but surely. His footwork stumbled. His return of serve found the top of the net. The final game came down to four unforced errors from Nalbandian. The two men hugged at the net when it was all over, but Rafael Nadal got the berth in the round of sixteen.
With the defending champion Andy Murray out of the tournament, along with #2 seed Novak Djokovic, the draw just might wind down in a week's time to another crowd-pleasing final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
"If I am in the final, I don't care [who I play]," Nadal said. "For me, important thing is try to be in the final. But, you know, I am in fourth round for me, no, so it's far away from that moment. Step by step, and sure it's important win for me today. Every match right now I want to be really important for me, and every victory give me confidence."
David Nalbandian's best showing here in Key Biscayne was in 2006 when he reached the semifinals and lost to the 2010 Indian Wells singles champion Ivan Ljubicic. David's performance today could portend better things to come, or not. Nalbandian has all the talent in the world to win a Major, but hasn't quite showed the perseverance and commitment.
"I think it's strange that one player like David don't have a Grand Slam victory," Nadal said, shrugging his shoulders. "He has everything to win."