There are few more exasperating opponents than David Nalbandian. The Argentine is an obdurate and ruthless scrapper who never gives up and has a way of getting under an opponent's skin quite unlike any other player.
Nalbandian so infuriated Tim Henman at the Madrid Masters here yesterday that the umpire tried to intervene as the two men argued. The British No 2, beaten 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 after serving for the match at 5-4 in the final set, was furious that Nalbandian had called his sportsmanship into question after a disputed line call, while the world No 4 later scoffed at Henman's reputation as a gentleman and called him "the worst rubbish there is".
Henman can berate umpires and did so yesterday during a match littered with poor line calls but it was hard to recall him in such an angry confrontation with an opponent.
Nalbandian was serving at 5-5 and 15-30 in the final set when his first serve was called out. The Argentine asked Henman his opinion and the Briton said he thought the ball was probably in. Nalbandian suggested he should have two more serves, Henman thought otherwise and the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, refused to overrule the original call. Although Henman went on to win the point, Nalbandian fought back from 15-40 down to win the game. At the subsequent changeover, Lahyani tried in vain to halt a heated debate between the players.
Henman said: "He [Nalbandian] said: 'Well, you didn't give me first serve.' First serve at 5-5, 15-30 when I think your serve was in? I think he's in a dream world. Then he started questioning my sportsmanship." Henman added pointedly: "I think if we're going to go down that road, there's only one winner."
Asked whether his sportsmanship had ever been doubted before, Henman replied: "I think there's a first time for everything."
Nalbandian said: "I asked him [Henman] for the first serve and even though he said it was good he would not give it to me. All this selling himself as a gentleman is not true. He is the worst rubbish there is."
The match was played on the second court here, where there is no video technology. Henman complained of poor bounces and said the surface was " 25 to 30 per cent" slower than the main court.
The chip-and-charge tactics which had worked so well in his previous two matches were not nearly as productive as Nalbandian kept Henman pegged back. Nevertheless the Briton served well, and hit some fine ground strokes.
Henman complained to Lahyani early in the first set about the "desperate " line calling. When he dropped his serve in the fourth game he smashed the ball away in anger before thumping the floor with his racket. He was broken again to love to give Nalbandian the first set after just 29 minutes.
Henman took the second set and broke to love in the fifth game of the final set, only for Nalbandian to save his best till last.
Rafael Nadal had a comfortable win over Tommy Haas, but Andy Roddick, suffering from an ankle injury, lost to Tomas Berdych, while Roger Federer needed the help of video technology to beat Robin Soderling 7-6, 7-6.
The world No 1 made a successful challenge to a line call when Soderling had a point to win the first set and won the final tie-break after correctly challenging his opponent's "winners" on the last two points. Nevertheless, Federer said he would continue to oppose use of the technology.