Sunday, 26 October 2008

PR Pundit Required.Please Inspire Within...

What should have been two mouth watering match ups this weekend ended up being largely one sided affairs. Still it was good to see Federer bag his third title of the year in Basel (also his third consecutive here), while Ivanovic confirmed that her semi final appearance in Zurich was no flash in the pan: she beat Zvonerava to claim the title in Linz.

Great as this is for them, I want to focus on one of the runners-up.

Nalbandian is in the eyes of many(myself included), the most talented player never to have won a Slam. I don't think the ATP make any awards in that category, but in any case that is not, should not be the kind of epitaph Nalbandian is remembered by when he eventually calls it a day.

And therein lies the problem: what baffles me, bothers me most about Nalbandian isn't his alarmingly consistent inconsistency, nor lets say, his rather 'suspect' fitness regime. What really gets to me is how comfortable he sometimes appears, with it all slipping away.

His semi final loss at Queens this year (6-1,6-0 to Djokovic) made me wonder why he turned up. As great a player as Djokovic is, there's no way I can rationalise that scoreline in my mind without thinking that Nalbandian was injured, ill or so mentally out of sorts that he simply shouldn't be on court.

There's three ways that most players cope with not being able to perform to their expectations:

  • They break racquets, foulmouth the umpire, smack tennis balls out of the arena: anything to get them out of the rut.
  • They internalise their anger and smoulder as they die a slow brooding death on court.
  • They cut a defeated figure and radiate negativity.
Only the first of these is really acceptable as it allows one to turn a negative into a positive. But there's also a fourth vehicle used by a minority of players in which they simply disengage - stop caring. What makes this perhaps the worst possible response is its neutrality. In the cases above, however negative, the player is at least conveying their frustration, showing everybody just how badly they want to turn this around.

This apathetic response may have been acceptable if Nalbandian were a player ranked outside of the top 50 facing a 6-2, 5-1 scoreline with Federer serving for the match.

But this is a man who's beaten Federer 8 times (ok, 4 of those were circa 2002-2003, but how many other players can boast that record) and been to at least the semis of all four slams.

He's got one of the best double handed backhands in the world, and moves so amazingly (almost freakishly) well that Tennis Magazine described it as 'materialising next to the ball'.

Anyway this is all sounding far too ominous; Nalbandian may have an attitude problem, but I suspect theres also something else at play, something a little easier to fix. I get the feeling he's sometimes simply unaware of just how poor his body language can get at times, and doesn't always understand how damaging this can be to his public persona. I don't think he's consciously trying to disengage with anyone, least of all his fans but he certainly wasn't winning any new ones when he went off court at Queens that day.

His loss to Federer this weekend wasn't his best performance but not his worst either. Reaching the finals here and his recent win in Stockholm suggest he is still serious about his tennis so maybe all he needs is a PR makeover. Some people just aren't great presenters - and besides PR isn't his thing, hitting backhands is.

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