As the fifth set in the championship at the year-end event started, and David Nalbandian proceeded to win four games in steady succession, the camera swung to Roger Federer, standing at the service lines, his racquet lying on the ground, his arms crossed, a frown on his solid and normally happy appearing face. As if he were contemplating a problem not encountered before. Or at least since June of this year, the time when he last lost a match. .

His long-time partner and manager, Mirka, speaks of how happy he is when he wakes up in the morning. Any morning. That made me cringe. A man who does that on a regular basis should be beaten, just on principle alone. But this was excruciating to watch now.

Roger was getting his butt kicked. And this even after winning the first two sets in nerve-wracking tiebreakers, lengthy and extremly hard fought. That should have broken the back, if not the spirit, of David Nalbandian.

But to David’s great credit, the biggest weapon in his arsenal today was his tenacity. He was determined to hang in there with the era’s greatest player, he knew he had been playing well, he knew if he stayed with Federer he would get chances. He played steady, he played consistently. He came out out of the gate firing with deep, heavy shots. He wanted to make the statement, “I am here to push you around, I am going for my shots.” Roger was kept on his toes. Nalbandian really took it to him.

Once he had his serve and ground game working well, Nalbandian could afford to take chances. He closed often into the net behind a weak Federer shot, and won a lot of his points there. Both guys went drop-shot crazy today. Personally I happen to love seeing all these little birdies fly, ever so low, over the net for winners. But the hackers at home are going to go crazy when they see this, and I’m afraid they will all rush out and try to duplicate it. That won’t be a pretty sight. You can’t teach this shot, you can only talk about it. The player either has it or he/she doesn’t.

The fact that this was a five-set match could have, nearly, foretold the outcome of this match. Time was clearly on Nalbandian’s side today, he had the better conditioning. Roger had nearly enough breath from somewhere to snatch the victory out. But just as Amelie Mauresmo really needed the win in Los Angeles at the women’s event, David Nalbandian needed to lay similar “choke” histories to rest with a win here today.

Their history is interesting, going back to the juniors, when Nalbandian held sway over Roger. He did not start beating his Argentine nemesis until the final of this same event two years ago. Now Roger Federer has won their last four matches.

You can sense why Nalbandian has given Federer trouble over the years. For my money, Nalbandian is a kind of updated version of Borg. He drives you nuts, he wears you down, his steadiness is destined and structured to defeat the “artistes” on the tour, and Roger is certainly that. David played very steady today. The human backboard, and much of the time he not only got the ball back, he got it back with a vicious dollop of pace that forced errors today, until Roger looked like he did in his first week of play here, when he struggled to reach his form after a long layoff due to an ankle strain.

Nalbandian was able to keep this up, he was absolutely dogged. I think you have to honor a man, only one of four men this year, to beat Roger Federer. This was a worthy match for both men, despite the tension of the close games, and despite a bit of testiness between them it appeared at one point, when Roger Federer seemed to complain to the chair about something Nalbandian was doing. Perhaps he felt David was questioning too many of his shots. The guys held it together, until they brought out the very best in each other. Federer salvaged what could have been an awful bagel job like he inflicted on Gaston Gaudio, his semi-final opponent. Only it could have been on him in that fifth set going down 6-0.

If we could be the fly on the wall tonight, or whenever it is, that Tony Roche goes over the match with his pupil, Roger Federer, maybe he would not say very much at all. Many of Roger’s errors later in the match came out of exhaustion. Where the guy found “the fumes, ” as Patrick McEnroe referred to it, to push his way back into the match, and nearly pull it out, is something of a mystery.

Roger was born under the sign of Leo, the natives of that sign have a innate sense of pride in all they do, and they will strive to defend their good name against all odds. He hates to lose.

At the post-match interview, Roger was quoted as saying he was very happy he played the way he did today. That is a great thing to hear.

The fifth set tiebreak came right down to the wire, and it was a most fitting end to the day. You really can’t say there was a loser, although for Federer it will seem a sad end to several wonderful winning streaks, having won 24 finals up until this one, 35 matches overall, and he threatened to tie John McEnroe’s record of 82-3 overall during a year. Federer will now be 81-4.

I keep babbling on in this column about how a guy like Federer really needs worthy rivals. This match might loosen up the men’s tour, you can just imagine the other guys are watching all this in the players’ lounge, or whatever dive bars they happen to hang out in. The fact a good, solid but not spectacular player like David Nalbandian can emerge from the pack late in the season and beat the World’s No. One, will fire the boys up. Good for business.

Rafael Nadal, Marat Safin, Andre Agassi. Those were the guys who were expected, and often have, given a lot of trouble to Roger Federer. I don’t quite include Andy Roddick in this mix, at least not of late. Federer has given him a case of the yips, and I don’t see Andy feeling he can beat Federer anytime soon. Better just to let the guy be and take some of that pressure off.

David Nalbandian? That was not a name that automatically sprang to mind as a potential usurper of the Federer throne.

But now that he’s here, why come on in, guy, and have a seat at the table.
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