Nalbandian Tries to Defy the Odds in Comeback from Hip Surgery

David Nalbandian will never win over fans with his personality. Disdainful of the media, surly with tour officials and opponents and seemingly indifferent to his public persona, the Argentine has no time for the image-making responsibilities that come with sports celebrity.

But the former Wimbledon finalist’s crafty, dogged style can be captivating, even beautiful. For opponents, it can be maddening. So while it might be a stretch to say he was missed in the locker rooms or press briefings, Nalbandian’s return in February following hip surgery is a notable addition to the start of the 2010 tennis season, the meat of which really begins here in the California desert. With the women’s tour oversaturated with comeback stories, Nalbandian is the most intriguing return-from-prominence narrative on the other side of the aisle (Mario Ancic is a close second).

Nalbandian faces a tough road. At 28, he is on the back end of his career. And few players have returned to their previous level after going under the knife to repair a damaged hip, as Nalbandian did last May. It brought down the career curtain on some big names, among them three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten and former No. 2 Magnus Norman. What’s more, Nalbandian is no stranger to physically taxing matches. A shotmaker hiding inside a grinder’s mentality, Nalbandian often seems to possess a masochistic streak, preferring to torture and frustrate his opponents before putting them out of their misery. We sometimes joke in the press room that a two-set deficit for Nalbandian is a sign he’s done warming up.

Whatever his shortcomings, Nalbandian has always been a big tournament player. I use that phrase to distinguish him from being a big-match player, which, he has demonstrated on numerous occasions, he is not. Check the stats. Despite his all-surface talents, the Argentine has never won more than two titles in any season, and owns just 10 in a decade-long career. On the other hand, he has captured the season-ending Masters Cup and is one of only four active players along with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic with an appearance in the semifinals of all four majors.

In the players’ lounge Friday, the former No. 3 said it was too early to predict whether he could recapture the form that made him a deep threat in any tournament with mega prize money or best-of-five sets. His immediate goal is matches. “First of all, I want to be on court again and try to play healthy a few tournaments,” a surprisingly pleasant Nalbandian said after beating Stefan Koubek of Austria 6-2, 7-6 (2) to move into the second round. Sunday, he goes up against streaky No. 22 seed Jurgen Melzer, also of Austria. With a few tournaments under his belt, he added, he could better assess where his game is. “I think they can be high goals,” he said, “but I don’t know if I am 100%, 90% or 75%. I have to play a few tournaments to see how good I am.”

Nalbandian’s on-court ethic rarely has been in question. Off-court, there have been rumors and reports of life in the fast lane, both figuratively and literally (he is a big fan of race car driving). Nalbandian insisted he dedicated himself to his recovery all last year, working hard five days a week and only taking time to pursue his hobbies like fishing and speedy driving on weekends. He also hung out with his extended family at his home of Cordoba for the first time in years. “It was the most time I spent there since I was 12-13,” he says.

His recovery still took longer than anticipated. Nalbandian, who is ranked No. 139 but has a protected ranking, hoped to return in January at Auckland and then play at the Australian Open. He had to pull out, and then suffered another setback at his return in February on clay at Buenos Aires. He won his first two matches and then withdrew due to an abductor tear in his right leg. It left him wondering if he had come back too soon. “It was a long time out of the circuit,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent happy with the beginning of the year.”

That didn’t dissuade him from traveling to Sweden for his country’s first-round Davis Cup tie this month. Despite his backup role, Nalbandian played the hero in his first Davis Cup match since the ugly infighting during the team’s tense loss to Spain in the 2008 final. He bested Andreas Vinciguerra 7-5 6-3 4-6 6-4 in the decisive fifth rubber for 3-2 win in Stockholm.

Nalbandian admits it was “a lot of risk to play there.” But it was the kind of lift he needed, even if he has arrived at Indian Wells drained. “It was good for the mind, for the confidence….I’m a little bit tired, but it feels good.” He adds: “I think the people know I love Davis Cup.”

If Nalbandian can’t compete in the big events, will he hang it up? It’s hard to see a player with nearly $10 million in earnings that performs best at significant tournaments satisfied with a top-50 ranking and first-week exits at Slams. But he said that would not necessarily drive him from the tour. If he can’t be an elite player again, he said he would reassess -- “try new goals,” in his words. Then he smiled, his crystal blue eyes beaming. “It can be,” he said of attaining his former place in the sport.


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