Why Marat Safin has a few slams and David Nalbandian does not.

Our intrepid reader Jenny placed David Nalbandian in the same category as Marat Safin: supremely gifted but lacking in commitment. I had never really thought to compare Nalbandian and Safin but after I thought about it for a while, I realized the comparison may explain why Safin has two slams and Nalbandian has none.

When I look at Safin I think to myself: “Extreme talent but, Lord, can he ever get out of his own way?” When I look at Nalbandian I think: “Solid, solid player but he’s missing the world class monster-eating-must-win-at-any-cost gene.”

One of them has too much fire and the other doesn’t have enough. I’m not sure it’s fiery competition that gnaws at Safin. He’d have a tortured soul if we’d never heard of him and he worked at a fish market. That’s just his personality. And he’s Russian. Russian literature is crawling with tortured souls.

Tennis has had a few of its own. Boris Becker qualified. Becker railed at himself on court and put himself in difficult positions off it. He married a black woman in post-war Germany and suffered through silly misdeeds such as fathering a child from a quickie encounter in a restaurant while his pregnant wife was in the hospital.

Nalbandian is missing that fire. Nadal has it, Djokovic has it, Henin lives and breathes it. I think Mauresmo had it too though not any more. Nalbandian is a bit removed. There’s nothing cerebral about wanting to kill your opponent. It’s a very visceral feeling and there’s something about Nalbandian that isn’t visceral. He’s there but floating just a bit above himself looking down and watching instead of being down and dirty in the mud slogging it out for all he’s worth.

Some people are more comfortable being runners-up. Nalbandian may be one of them. I used to play tennis with my friend Tremell every week. He was a much better player so I started each set with a three game lead. I was very proud when I reached the day that I didn’t need a three game handicap but there was a problem. Tremell preferred starting each set down three games because he was more motivated when he was behind.

Once you’ve reached a number one ranking or won a slam and have to defend it, your job description changes. You’re no longer part of the crowd trying to knock off the top player, you’re job is fending off challengers. That requires even more confidence than it took to get to the top and that’s why players like Safin and Mauresmo win one or two slams then stop. Their talent got them there but they don’t have the personality to stay for any amount of time.

It’s getting harder to say that Nalbandian doesn’t have the personality to win a slam. He won the Madrid and Paris Masters Series events this fall and that ain’t half bad. But I’m still gonna say it. I don’t think he gets a slam.

I expect Andy Murray, one of those other tortured souls, to win one first.

Teddy Awards

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