Federer fails again to find measure of Nalbandian

Us Open Tennis: Argentinian's scrambling style leaves Swiss angry and exasperated after fifth defeat
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The Independent Online

A seething Roger Federer left here for Switzerland yesterday to spend a couple of days in contemplation in home surroundings. Next Monday he is due to check in for a flight to Melbourne to prepare for the Davis Cup semi-final against Australia, which starts on 19 September.

The Wimbledon champion took off in clear skies as his rivals emerged from the grey dampness at the United States Open to wage a hectic battle for the men's singles crown. Among them was David Nalbandian, a 5ft 11in Argentinian who plays right-handed with a two-handed backhand and does not seem to differ much from most of his peers.

But to Federer, Nalbandian appears to grow horns and a tail each time they play against each other. Five times he has bedevilled the most talented young man in the game. The latest episode took place when Nalbandian defeated Federer, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3, in the fourth round here on Thursday evening.

Prior to that, Nalbandian, the runner-up to the Australian Lleyton Hewitt in the 2002 Wimbledon final, had already frustrated Federer twice this year, in the fourth round at the Australian Open in January, and in the second round at the Cincinnati Masters last month. Last year Federer lost to Nalbandian in the second round of the Monte Carlo Master and in the semi-finals of his home town tournament in Basle.

Nalbandian also had the better of Federer in the 1998 US Open junior final, his only loss to the Swiss coming at the Orange Bowl junior tournament in Miami.

Federer, though angry with himself, held his emotions in check until an American reporter, curious that Nalbandian had a game to unhinge such a brilliant all-round player, wondered if Federer had thought about trying to change something.

"Did it look like I didn't try to change anything, or what?" the usually mild-mannered Federer said. "Let's go to other questions, please."

"[When he sees me] maybe he dreams a little bit," Nalbandian said, smiling. "I like his game, but I don't know exactly why. My return is good. I don't care about his serve and volley or whatever. I try to press on the second serve and then try to play more on the backhand."

"First of all," said Federer, trying to explain to himself as well as the media why Nalbandian is his nemesis, "he likes my game because I keep coming in and he likes to play contra tennis, which he does extremely well. He scrambles well. He reads the game well. He makes me struggle. You tend to maybe over-play shots. I've never felt I had a great day playing against him. His game doesn't allow me to."

He added: "It's very weird for me to play him. We have known each other a long time, from juniors. But I think every opponent should go into a match like this thinking he can beat me. And the same for me, that I can beat the other player. Otherwise, you have a mental block in your head, and this is not what I have."

Nalbandian has worked hard on his fitness, and arrived in New York leaner and hungrier for success than ever before. Federer was unable to recover his confidence and rhythm after the way he lost the second set, having controlled the first. Federer went from 5-0 down to 5-5 and saved two set points to force a tie-break, but then only won one point in the shoot-out.

"I had my chances chances today," Federer said. "I felt good in the first set. I thought I kind of figured him out. It was disappointing to lose the second set. I just thought I'd hang in there, and eventually get a chance to come back in the set. It was just a pity I lost it in the end. It probably would have changed the match. But he played well in the tie-breaker, and I played terrible."

Nalbandian said his confidence never wavered. "You always have to think about winning," he said. "So I didn't care if it was 5-0 and then I was playing in the tie-break. I had to try to win the set. You have to keep your focus."

Asked if three days of rain-delays, allowing only four matches to be completed, had taken the edge of his game, Federer said: "It was the same for both of us. The delay was good for me. I had some little injuries, and I could get over them in the delays. I've had disappointing losses in my career, so this doesn't change if I have one more or one less."

Of the players who have fallen in the rush to catch up matches after the delays, Francesca Schiavone deserves sympathy. After two days waiting to serve, a set and 5-4 down, to stay in her fourth-round match against Ai Sugiyama, of Japan, the Italian prevailed.

No sooner had Schiavone said how pleased she was to reach the quarter-finals for the first time, then she had to go out again to face Jennifer Capriati, who beat her in straight sets.