So green, Nalbandian in so enviable a place

In first grass tournament as pro, Argentine disposes of Malisse, hits men's final

July 07, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England - Today, Argentina's David Nalbandian becomes either a tennis footnote or tennis champion.

He either gets beaten by No. 1 seed Lleyton Hewitt of Australia in the Wimbledon men's final, or wins the entire tournament in his Centre Court debut.

He either gets remembered like Chris Lewis, the New Zealander wiped out by John McEnroe in the 1983 final, or Goran Ivanisevic, who came from nowhere to win last year.

Either way, Nalbandian is in the midst of what could become one of the great stories in Wimbledon's history.

In an upset-filled tournament, Nalbandian has pulled off the biggest shock of all, becoming the first player in his Wimbledon debut to reach the final in the Open era of tennis that began in 1968.

To do it, he had to outlast Belgium's Xavier Malisse in a two-day, five-set match that ended yesterday with Nalbandian on his knees in triumph, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 1-6, 2-6, 6-2.

"For me, this is a dream," Nalbandian said.

It could, of course, turn into a nightmare today when Nalbandian, 20, meets Hewitt, 21, who reached the final by a more conventional route Friday, beating Britain's Tim Henman in straight sets.

This was supposed to be a year of transition at Wimbledon, with the old generation giving way to the young.

But this is getting a little ridiculous, two baseliners meeting for a title that is usually the domain of the serve-and-volleyers.

Nalbandian has not done anything easily at Wimbledon. As a junior in 1999, he reached the semifinals of the boys tournament but was defaulted because he arrived late for the match. He did manage to win the boys doubles title.

Against Malisse, he was forced to go two days, the match knotted through four sets after play was halted by darkness Friday.

Malisse was under stress Friday and left the court for an extended period after the first-set tiebreaker, complaining of being dizzy and short of breath because his heart was racing. Malisse confirmed that doctors told him not to go back on court Friday.

"Yeah, that's their opinion, you know," he said. "They don't know what happened. I've been to a cardiologist, and I've checked everything up. Everything's fine. I mean, there's nothing to worry about."

Malisse might have won the match had it not been suspended by darkness. He seemed a lot calmer yesterday when the match resumed with a one-set showdown on Court One.

But after breaking serve to go up 2-1 in the last set, Malisse was run out of the tournament over the next five games.

"He probably kept his nerve just a little better than I did and that's why he's going through," Malisse said.

Can Nalbandian upset Hewitt in a final matching baseliners?

"You know, he might have a super day," Malisse said.

Not many people in tennis expect Nalbandian to win.

But then, not many expected him to get this far.

And no one has yet beaten Nalbandian in a match that he has actually played at Wimbledon, through juniors and through this year's tournament - his first grass-court event as a pro.

Nalbandian was supposed to play a Wimbledon tuneup in Nottingham, England, but missed the event because of a leg injury from practicing too much on grass back in Argentina.

How did he fare in practice back home?

"With everyone I lose," he said.

By the end of practice, he had at least improved to the point that instead of losing 6-1 or 6-2, he was losing in tiebreakers.

"Now I'm here in the finals," he said.

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