David Nalbandian has announced he will retire from tennis due to a shoulder injury. Nalbandian shut down his season to undergo shoulder surgery last fall and returned in the spring this year to make the Copa Claro final in Buenos Aires, where he lost to Rafael Nadal. A few weeks later he lost to Jarkko Nieminen in the first round of the Sony Open, in what would turn out to be his final match. He has not played since.
At a news conference in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, Nalbandian called it a “difficult day”.
“I can play matches, but my shoulder won’t let me continue my career,” he told reporters. “I can’t play like that at a [professional] level.
“It’s tough because I have to announce my retirement from the sport that gave me so much. I’m very grateful.”
Nalbandian, 31, won 11 ATP titles, including two ATP Masters 1000s, which he won back-to-back in Madrid and Paris in 2007, beating both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer en route to the titles, as well as one Masters Cup. He finished the season inside the top 10 for fives straight years from 2003 to 2007, reaching a career high of No. 3 in 2006. He made the semifinals or better at all four Grand Slams and achieved his best result just two years after turning pro when he reached the final at Wimbledon in 2002, where he lost to Lleyton Hewitt.
Gifted with one of the sweetest backhands in the game and a gift for timing and shotmaking, Nalbandian spent years acting as a foil to some of the game’s great champions and he’ll go down as one of the best players to never win a Grand Slam. He began his career 5-0 against Roger Federer and was one of the few men who had a knack for beating Federer on the biggest stages. He defeated him twice at Slams in 2003 and scored four more wins at ATP Masters 1000 events, finishing with a record of 8-11. That is as good as anyone outside of the ATP’s Big Three.
Here’s a look back at some of the most memorable moments from the Argentine’s 13-year career:
• Those moments when he made tennis look easy.
There was an effortless manner in which Nalbandian played. His was a game built on pure talent, a natural gift for striking a clean ball and the confidence in knowing that he could hit any shot in the book from any corner of the court. As is the curse of the talented, his consistency waned as his career went on and he went from being a consistent threat on a weekly basis to being the dangerous floater who had the talent to beat any guy on any given day. Either way, you just never wanted to see his name in your part of the draw.
When he was in the zone, few were better:
• One of the best backhands ever.
It was a shot based purely on timing, and when it was on Nalbandian could do anything he wanted with the ball, redirecting it with power down the line at will. That shot in particular helped him earn a good amount of success against Federer. He made it look so easy.
• Nalbandian crashes the party at the 2005 Masters Cup
He wasn’t even supposed to be there. Nalbandian, ranked No. 12, was called in to take the place of Andy Roddick at the 2005 ATP Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai after Roddick was forced out of the tournament with a back injury. The Argentine proceeded to go 2-1 in round robin play to advance to the semifinals, where he beat Nikolay Davydenko in straight sets. He faced No. 1 Federer in the final, who came in riding a 35-match win streak. Nalbandian fought back from two sets to love down to win 6-7 (4), 6-7 (11), 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (3), snapping Federer’s streak of winning 24 straight finals and handing the Swiss just his fourth loss of that year.
• 2002 Wimbledon: His first and only Slam final.
The debate will rage as to whether Nalbandian is the best player to never win a Slam, but at a minimum he’s definitely the best player to make only one Slam final. That happened early in his career, when at just 20 years old and playing in his first grass court tournament, Nalbandian made his Centre Court debut on Championship Sunday against Lleyton Hewitt. The occasion seemed to overwhelm Nalbandian — he hit a whopping 41 unforced errors to just 10 winners that day — and lost 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in less than two hours. Sadly, he never got another bite at the apple.
• Nalbandian’s not good, very bad 2012 season.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of Nalbandian retiring now is that he hasn’t had any time or opportunity to wipe away his terrible 2012 season, which saw him rack up over $20,000 in fines for nasty behavior both on and off the court. The season began at the Australian Open, where Nalbandian lost his cool after a controversial overrule in his second round match against John Isner which led to a five-set loss.
Nalbandian reportedly threw water on an Australian Open official after the match and received an $8,000 fine for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Throwing water on an official? It speaks volumes about what Nalbandian did months later at the Aegon Championships that most people don’t even remember the Australian Open controversy. In the final against Marin Cilic, Nalbandian angrily kicked the advertising signage that sits around the line umpire’s chairs (and the line umpire), causing the board to crash into an umpire’s leg and left him bleeding.
Nalbandian was automatically defaulted from the final, fined over $12,000 by the ATP, and was the subject of police investigation. And in typical Nalbandian rebel behavior, the Argentine spent more time railing against the ATP during his post match interview in front of the crowd than apologizing.
• Nalbandian’s Davis Cup quest.
The Davis Cup was Nalbandian’s “enduring obsession,” as The New York Times‘ Christopher Clarey called it. But no matter how hard he tried (he helped get Argentina into the final three times) he could never bring the Cup back to his native land. Against Russia in the 2006 final, he won his two singles matches but the Argentines fell 3-2. His best chance was in 2008 when Argentina, then with a surging Juan Martin del Potro on the team, hosted the final against a Spanish team that did not include Rafael Nadal. The Argentines self-destructed and Nalbandian was in the center of it all. With rumors of a blow-up between Nalbandian and his teammates swirling during the tie, the weekend left a legacy of discord within the team.
• Talented until the end.
Nalbandian’s body may have betrayed him but it didn’t mean he couldn’t summon his best on any given day. In one of the best matches he played late in his career, Nalbandian took Nadal to three sets in a spirited battle in the 2012 BNP Paribas Open quartefinals, losing 6-4, 5-7, 4-6.
• The Sixth Backstreet Boy.
This video of Nalbandian singing needs no explanation. Nor do I have one.