August 7, 2010

An International Affair

It's strange that in the U.S. capital, not one American made it to the final weekend in the singles draw. What might be even stranger is that the two men playing the finals tomorrow, though both long-time veterans of the Tour, have never even played a championship match on American soil.

In the second semifinal match at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, wildcard David Nalbandian took on fourth seeded Marin Cilic. The Argentine, once #3 in the world, had won ten titles in his decade-long career, but hip surgery, which took him out of play for most of 2009, and a leg injury this past February kept him in and out of contention at the big events. He hasn't played in any of the Majors this year and looks to make his return at the end of the summer in Flushing Meadows. If his performance in D.C. is any indication, he might be able to impress.

Having lost a slew of points over the past eighteen months, Nalbandian has dropped into triple digits -- a little daunting for a man who just a year ago was in the top twenty. But he was on fire in Washington and didn't drop a set in his first three matches. Though he hiccuped early against Gilles Simon on Friday night, he rebounded well and broke the Frenchman's serve six times in the last two sets.

Cilic has been a little more consistent this year -- one of my favorites to break into the top five this year, the young Croat hadn't won much during the clay and grass court seasons, but had compiled a more-than-solid 21-5 record on the hard courts this year, complete with two trophies in his first three tournaments. This week he rolled through red-hot Mardy Fish in the third round and powered through a hard-hitting Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters.

But something was off his game this evening -- or rather, something was very on in Nalbandian's.

"I don't think I can count on one hand the number of points he missed today," Cilic said of the near-perfect shot making of Nalbandian. The Argentine felt similarly confident with his game, saying after the match: "Last night I needed a set (to warm up) -- today I needed a game."

Though Cilic broke his opponent to start, the usually-big server was held to one ace the entire match. He lost seven games in a row to a very clean David and ultimately doled out an unimpressive service game to end the match.

Nalbandian's first final in the U.S. is a reward after what's seemed like a long slog back for him. And as he takes on Marcos Baghdatis, another man who's had his greatest successes elsewhere in the world, he certainly looks like he'll be tough to beat. But tomorrow's final certainly sets the stage for what could be a very entertaining U.S. Open Series -- and with so many of the sport's greats having some roller coaster runs, the possibilities of making an even bigger dent in the States have never been so great.

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