Nalbandian is sliding, Safin is having trouble holding ground and Gonzalez can’t win a tournament.

We’re just about to start the third round here in Los Angeles at the Countrywide Classic and David Nalbandian and Fernando Gonzalez are already gone after losing the first round. Both appear to have hit a kind of tennis wall.

Nalbandian’s best result this year was a quarterfinal and he looks out of shape. This is a guy who’s been in the top twenty for the last five years and most of that time he was in the top ten. That’s a good career but he’s also the quintessential runner-up. He has only five titles and one Tennis Masters Cup to show for it. Again and again he went deep into tournaments and went up against the top players in the world and came up just a bit short.

Fernando Gonzalez is in a different place in his career. Since hiring Larry Stefanek as his coach last year, he’s jumped in to the top ten and stayed there and he’s reached the finals of two Masters Series events and a slam. But he hasn’t won a title since 2005. He might be stepping in and taking over where Nalbandian left off now that Nalbandian is slipping down the rankings.

Marat Safin is still in the draw here but these days he’s having trouble closing out matches with players like George Bastl, a 32-year-old who’s ranked number 255.

After winning the first set handily, Safin hit five double faults and a number of ill-advised drop shots in the second set and allowed Bastl to even the match. In the third set, Safin hit some wild forehands. He wasn’t moving well and he appeared to be tired. After one more drop shot ended up in the net, someone in the crowd yelled out: “You cannot be serious!” John McEnroe’s taunt has now become the de facto tennis insult.

Bastl hit his own double fault to give up a break in the third set and Safin pulled out the match, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4. The match ended too late to have a media session but Safin summed it up accurately in his on court interview: “I was lucky, actually.”

If I’d been able to interview Safin, I might have asked him about his new coach, Hernan Gumy. Check out the images on this site for beefcake photos of Gumy. When those two guys go out to clubs together, I imagine they set off a stampede of women.

Safin is 27-years-old, Gonzalez will be 27 later this month and Nalbandian is only 25 but they may be too late. Novak Djokovic, a 20-year-old, beat Gonzalez at the French Open last year and his young pals are just as good. Marcos Baghdatis beat Nalbandian at Wimbledon a few weeks ago and Tomas Berdych has already won the Paris Indoors which used to be Safin’s property – he won it three times and was also a runner-up.

Maybe Djokovic, Baghdatis and Berdych will have similar careers to Gonzalez, Nalbandian, and Safin, successful but not spectacular. Maybe we’re substituting one set of three players for another. If so, it’s a testament to the sport because Safin has been spectacular at times and Nalbandian’s tenure at the top has been exceptional.

Sometimes I’ll hear a person talk about a retired player in glowing terms and I’ll look up his record. If there aren’t many titles next to his name I tend to dismiss him but now I know better. Having watched Nalbandian go deep in the slams for the past five years has changed my mind.

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Read other articles about Los Angeles:
Interview with a Modest James Blake
ATP Fantasy Tennis: Do You Pick Nadal or Not?
The Greatest Road Trip in Sports Hits California

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