02:39 PM GMT November 17, 2018
David Nalbandian was kicking back, one week on from his final match of the 2005 season. His bags were packed, his fishing rods in the car and he was almost out of the door and on the road. Then came a phone call from Tour Manager Andre Silva asking, ‘Can you fly to Shanghai?’ At No. 12 in the ATP Rankings, Nalbandian had little chance of competing at the eight-player Tennis Masters Cup [now named Nitto ATP Finals], but after a flurry of late withdrawals, including Andy Roddick with a back injury, the Argentine was in. A trip with his family and close friends from Córdoba to Patagonia, a region shared by Argentina and Chile, would have to be shelved.
"I remember that I was not going to play and that I entered through the back door, a lucky loser," Nalbandian exclusively told ATPWorldTour.com. "I was an alternate and I was nearly going on a trip with friends to the Patagonia… and then, suddenly, Roddick and others pulled out and I received the magical call. I got my fishing gear out of the car and started packing for another tennis trip." The phone call for help came on 9 November, the tournament began four days later — 11 time zones away.
"I remember that I arrived just on time, after four or five days of being in ‘holiday’ mode,” said Nalbandian, who had experience of playing at the prestigious event in 2003 when it was held in Houston. “I took more than 24 hours of flights alone from Argentina to arrive in China, with 11 hours of time difference. So my preparations were far from the ideal. I never liked the time changes at it made me feel unwell."
The new $200 million Qi Zhong Stadium, an hour drive outside of downtown Shanghai, became a home away from home for Nalbandian with three other Argentines — Roland Garros champion Gaston Gaudio, Guillermo Coria and Mariano Puerta — also competing at the season finale. Nalbandian, who was soon joined in Shanghai by his physio Diego Rodriguez, his mother Alda and his agent Carlos Costa, was drawn in the Red Group alongside the then two-time champion Roger Federer, Coria and Ivan Ljubicic. Andre Agassi, who would withdraw after his first round-robin match due to left ankle ligament damage and was replaced by Fernando Gonzalez, led the Gold Group including Nikolay Davydenko, Gaudio and Puerta. Nadal (left foot), Lleyton Hewitt (due to the birth of his first child), and Marat Safin (knee) had also withdrawn prior to the prestigious tournament.
"I started hitting the ball and my striking was very good," admitted Nalbandian, 15 years on. "‘Wow, okay.’ I had a very good feeling that gave me the courage and hope to contest a good tournament."
But Nalbandian knew his chances were slim. In his first round-robin match against Federer, a winner of 11 titles with just three loses in 2005, the 23-year-old competed hard but fell 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. “I lost in three sets but well, but I left the court feeling not too bad,” said Nalbandian, who had won his first five matches against Federer. “On the contrary, I thought it was going to be worse and it was a tough match that I could have won and he escaped well. After that I knew that I had a chance because my game was fine. It was a matter of going day by day and I think it went pretty well!”
Nalbandian would go on to beat Coria 7-5, 6-4 and then Ljubicic 6-2, 6-2 to complete group play in second position with a 2-1 record. "I wanted to beat Ivan because I had lost against him in Croatia that year and, you know, I was quite a competitive guy,” said Nalbandian. “I didn’t want to lose again by any means." He’d now face Gold Group winner Davydenko, with a 3-0 mark, but triumphed 6-0, 7-5. Federer, who four weeks earlier had damaged ligaments in his right ankle, after a training mishap, and wore a brace for many of his matches in Shanghai, recorded the only 6-0, 6-0 result in season finale history over Gaudio in the other semi-final to set up a re-match in the 20 November final.
Federer had won their past four matches and had an 81-3 record on the season — the most victories in a single year since Pete Sampras in 2003 — and one win shy of equalling John McEnroe’s 82-3 mark in 1984, the highest single-season win rate in the Open Era (since April 1968). Nalbandian’s Swiss opponent had also won his past 35 matches and 24 consecutive finals, an Open Era record dating back to his last title match loss to Jiri Novak on 13 July 2003 at Gstaad.
"I lost the first two sets, but they were really close in two tie-breaks, all small margin,” remembers Nalbandian, who could not convert three set points to lose the second set tie-break 13/11. "At that point I made a big change mentally in the match, saying to myself, ‘I’m two sets down and I could calmly be 2-0 up.’ I never thought that match was lost, I kept pushing forward and that was the key."
Nalbandian broke twice in the third set, then raced through the fourth set before taking a 4-0 lead in the decider. In a fifth set of momentum shifts, Federer recovered two service breaks for 4-4 and broke Nalbandian at 5-4 to serve for the match. Nalbandian responded immediately and looked to have blown his chance when he missed a backhand volley at 4/2 in the tie-break. He finally converted his fifth match point as Federer found the net to complete the four-hour and 33-minute encounter. With the win, Nalbandian collected $1.4 million in prize money, the keys to a new car, and returned to the Top 10 at No. 6 for the third straight year.
“The fifth set was a rollercoaster,” remembers Nalbandian, the first Argentina champion since Guillermo Vilas in 1974. “I was a break up, already close to winning, I lost my serve and we went to another tie-break. After losing the first two sets in tie-breaks, I did not play for another three hours to lose another tie-break. I said to myself at the start of the fifth set tie-break, ‘If there is a tie-break that I cannot lose in my career it is this one.' I was determined to win and luckily everything went my way."
Nalbandian, who had reached the 2002 Wimbledon final and would lift 11 ATP World Tour titles, said, "Without a doubt that was the highlight of my career. And a little more because of the mental aspect, for the up and downs in the whole week and in each game as well. It is impossible not to have lots of things about this tournament in my mind.”
"I joked during the trophy ceremony, 'Roger, don't worry, it's not your last final. You're going to win a lot of tournaments, so let me keep this one.'" Today, Federer continues to compete at the very highest level and has won 99 tour-level crowns - second on the Open Era list behind only Jimmy Connors (109). Nalbandian's heavy Waterford crystal trophy sits in a very special place in his house. The trophy is not on his mantlepiece, but in a small museum in his backyard. Every time the sun shines and he starts the barbeque, the Argentine gazes at it to remember the greatest day of his career. It could have been so different if he hadn’t responded to a call for help.
This weekend, Nalbandian is present at The O2 in London to watch the conclusion of the Nitto ATP Finals and five years on since his retirement, he will marvel at watching Federer. "I am surprised that Roger continues with the same passion and at the same level,” said Nalbandian. “He’s an amazing sports person. I'm really looking forward to being in London and I'm sure I'll make a joke to Federer about 2005!"
With special assistance from Marcos Zugasti