Returning To The Flock
August 3, 2010 -- Tennis careers in this relatively new millennium can be as fleeting as a political party's agenda here in Washington, DC.
The ATP World Tour schedule runs through to the end of November for those good enough to play well. Space-age racquet materials and polyester strings give players a green light to swing with abandon at the yellow fuzzy balls. Bundle those facts with the reality that a large percentage of players spend more time in the gym now than on a practice court and you have a potential recipe for sport spurts, rather than sports careers as we knew back in the 80s and 90s.
Some players, though, seem to resist the entropic fall from ranking heights. Roger Federer comes to mind. Rarely injured, Federer ended 2009 ranked #1, becoming the third player since the ATP Rankings began in 1973 to reach that lofty perch at least five times. Andy Roddick, too, has re-charged and re-invented his tennis, remaining in the top ten for eight years although he has missed months due to injury.
David Nalbandian and Xavier Malisse, two ultra-talented players here at this year's Legg Mason Tennis Classic, are trending upwards in the rankings after their tumbles outside the top 100.
If you put aside Nalbandian's and Malisse's injuries and lapses of commitment or irrational thinking toward their careers, which many opinion makers have attributed to both men, you can genuinely get revved up that they are back and here at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.
Malisse hasn't hit the courts in DC since his first appearance in 1999. Nalbandian is making his debut.
Malisse's win today over the #12 seed Julien Benneteau 75 64 was, in his words, a good win.
"I served well and played aggressively," Malisse said, confidently.
This is the best year on tour for the Belgian since a cacophony of injuries plagued him in 2007.
"It's been trouble since 2007," Malisse began. "I hurt one wrist and kept playing, not having any surgery. Then I twisted my knee and injured my left wrist."
In 2009, Malisse was forced to play challenger matches to improve his ranking and get back where he knew he belonged. It was way back in 2002 when he reached a career high of 19. Today he's ranked 62 -- a far cry from a year ago: 204.
He has had a couple wins this year over top 20 players and made a neat run to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Twelve years back Malisse remembers a slower paced game. Now, he said, the depth is phenomenal. "Players ranked 250 - 350 have a chance of winning."
As a thirty-year-old on tour, Malisse spends more time on physical conditioning.
"I'm playing well and feel healthy. My tennis is still there, but I have more workouts and less time on court."
He travels with a friend and 'sparing partner,' who helps his game and his moods. His return from the depths of injury hasn't been easy, especially at his age. However, with his friend he can laugh and work.
"I have more joy playing with my sparring partner," Malisse said, as a wry smile came across his face. "When I'm happy and doing good things go well."
David Nalbandian and Xavier Malisse have found each other in many draws, mostly to the Argentine's favor. They sit on opposite sides of the draw this week, and projecting isn't something players indulge in.
"I beat him last time we met," Malisse said. "He's coming back from injuries, too, but he's beaten everyone at Davis Cup and had a good win last night here. We'll see."
In 2002, Xavier Malisse was seconds away from a semifinal match against Nalbandian at Wimbledon when he was abruptly taken off court. His blood pressure had risen and his heart rate had elevated. He was forced to lie down, taking a full ten minutes to calm himself. He lost in five hard-fought sets, but showed the world his powerful athletic game, punctuated with damaging serves and accurate groundstrokes.
That match was during Nalbandian's first appearance at The All England Club.
Like Malisse, Nalbandian returned to the tour in February this year at Buenos Aires. As bad luck would have it, he retired from competition in the third round with a muscle tear to his right abductor muscle.
By March, Nalbandian proved his worth for Argentina's Davis Cup team where he won the fifth and decisive rubber against Sweden in Stockholm. He played Indian Wells as a wild card, as well as Miami where he lost to #4 seed Rafael Nadal.
Nalbandian is one of the strongest tour players. He is not tall like many. However, his chest is broad and his timing of the ball impeccable. He has put solid crimps in Federer's career record as well as Nadal's -- at certain moments.
Nalbandian's inconsistency is well documented. However, when he enters his zone no one can touch his deep, flat groundstrokes.
Nalbandian plays the #7 seed Stanislaus Wawrinka tomorrow. The Swiss star is 5-2 in their head-to-head record. The last time Nalbandian beat Wawrinka was in 2006 at The French Open. But the humid winds of Washington could blow either way at Legg Mason while these players stoke their hard-court engines on way to the final major of the year -- the U. S. Open.