Sunday, October 21, 2007

RANT: For the Love of the Comeback

As we speak, Troy is making his way back from Madrid into France, where he's doing a study abroad program for the semester. We'll have wrap-up commentary about his Madrid excursion sometime this week, along with pictures and (I'm hoping) maybe some video. I'm jealous that Troy got to experience so much high-quality tennis compared to my New Haven trip, but also so thankful that he was willing and able to share with us his journey.

A few thoughts from this weekend:

First off, David Nalbandian played some great tennis. I think tennis, and perhaps sport in general, is the second great arena for comeback artists. The first would obviously be Hollywood, where people are re-making themselves everyday.

It is rare to see a player display such different personas on court in one calendar season. Sure, tennis has seen the comeback stories of Agassi, Seles and Capriati (along with more recent small-scale comebacks like Serena and Henin), yet for a player to play so poorly and brilliantly in one season is something we don't witness much.

Now before you jump off your seat and say "You idiot! Players go through valleys and peaks all the time!", let me explain what I mean. To me, there is a difference between a player stringing together a few quality matches after having a lackluster season and a player beating the Top 3 ranked men in the world AND winning a Masters series event after having a lackluster season.

David Nalbandian did the latter. Just a couple weeks ago, I did one of my "Where Are They Now?" updates in a post, in which I called Nalbandian an "overweight has-been". Looking at those words now, they look harsh and un-called for, but a few weeks ago, I think they were particularly true and accurate. Nalbandian was just 25-17 coming into this week in Madrid. And though those numbers aren't alarming by any means, he had reached just one quarterfinal in his entire full-season schedule. And we're talking about a guy who made the quarters or better of 8 out of 11 slams played between the US Open '03 and the French '06!

His feat this week (beating the Top 3 players in consecutive matches) makes him just the third man since 1994 to do so. And while some tennis fans think that the current state of the game hovers at a level below what it once was, I think Nalbandian's accomplishment should be marked with high praise; he salvaged an embarrassing season in a single week, or, three days to be exact.

In his press conference after the match, Nalbandian said that he thought the timing of the win couldn't be better. He believes it gives him a fresh start for 2008, and I would have to agree.

The one thing the Argentine must continue to do is stay healthy. He has always struggled with his fitness - his belly a sign of where his work ethic is hovering - but it's his health that is most important. If he can stay healthy, and in turn get into great shape, he showed this week that he is among the greats in the game...and not just for a match or two.

To say that Nalbandian is "back where he belongs" or that he will be a sure-shot contender for the Australian Open would be rather foolish. He did, however, show that he's capable of playing great tennis for multiple matches, and that's all the professional tennis tour asks of its great players: play good, and do it consistently.

Perhaps the disinterest that Nalbandian exhibited at last year's Wimbledon, when he tanked a match just to go watch a soccer match (hasn't he hear of TiVo?) caught up with him this year. The injuries, the lack of off-court training and the disinterest all pooled together in '07 to make a great player just mediocre. And as a professional athlete, mediocrity can be worse than failure, especially for someone who's tasted the cake at the top.

If anyone can love a great comeback story more than the sport or screen world, it's the individual himself. There is nothing more motivating to hear bad things said about yourself, or whispers about the person/athlete/actor you once were and then turn around and say "Ha! I proved you wrong!" And if Nalbandian can keep his hunger - for something more than just a Masters Cup - alive...perhaps for something called a Major, we might just see his comeback story continue.

No comments: