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David Nalbandian of Argentina hits a backhand to David Ferrer of Spain in Rogers Cup ATP tennis action in Toronto on Tuesday August 10, 2010. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
David Nalbandian of Argentina hits a backhand to David Ferrer of Spain in Rogers Cup ATP tennis action in Toronto on Tuesday August 10, 2010. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


Argentine star rediscovering drive to succeed Add to ...

David Nalbandian has long been considered one the most talented but least engaged players in tennis.

A man who has ranked as high as No. 3 (in 2006), played in the Wimbledon final (2002) and the semi-finals of the Australian, French and U.S. Opens, he has also frequently seemed to be more interested in his hobby of driving rally cars.

He once uttered a phrase that would be heretical to singularly dedicated players such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: "Tennis is a profession, not an obsession."

Nalbandian often played like he was in it more for the money and the passion of the game.

He had some amazing results and accomplished the unprecedented such as beating both Federer and Nadal in winning back-to-back indoor tournaments in Madrid and Paris in 2007.

But he could also seem faint-hearted, as when he dominated Federer 6-3, 3-1 in the 2006 semi-finals of the French Open only to suddenly stop, claiming he had an abdominal strain with the score 3-6, 6-4, 5-2 in Federer's favour.

A solidly built 5-foot-11 man who weighs more than his listed 175 pounds, Nalbandian, 28, is a master striker of the ball, hitting shots off both sides with an ease and economy of motion that produces a maximum payload - i.e. a very heavy ball.

He trails his head-to-head with Federer, a contemporary who is just five months older, but it is hardly one-sided at 8-10. He won their first five matches in 2002 to 2003 and was then the Swiss's bête noir. But he did not have the kind of commitment that enabled Federer to vault past him to superstar status.

The David Nalbandian of his first career probably came to an end on May 13 in Spain last year when he underwent hip surgery, ending months of pain and poor results.

On Tuesday, coming into Toronto for the Rogers Cup after an unexpected tournament win in Washington last Sunday - defeating Marcos Baghdatis 6-2, 7-6(4) in the final - Nalbandian showed commendable moxie by outlasting David Ferrer 7-5, 3-6, 6-3.

Infamous for being ornery in his dealings with the media, Argentine and otherwise, Nalbandian seemed slightly kinder and gentler when he conceded about the indefatigable Spaniard, "if you have a choice of all the players to play in the first round, Ferrer is not going to be one of them."

Post surgery, Nalbandian did not return to action until the Buenos Aires event in February and later suffered a left hamstring injury that kept him out of both the French Open and Wimbledon. That made it six consecutive missed Grand Slams.

But he came back with a vengeance after Wimbledon, winning Davis Cup singles matches over Nikolay Davydenko and Mikhail Youzhny in Moscow to move Argentina into the semi-finals next month in Lyon against the French.

Earlier, in March in just his second event back, he won the doubles match and the fifth and deciding fifth singles match to lead his compatriots over the Swedes in Stockholm.

"I'm feeling good and still (could win) a Grand Slam," Nalbandian said. "I'm feeling healthy again."

But the Davis Cup remains his obsession. Argentina is the best nation never to have won the 110-year-old competition - losing finals to the Americans in Cincinnati in 1981 and at home in Mar del Plata to Spain, without Rafael Nadal, in 2008. Then, an expected victory turned into a debacle as Nalbandian, feuding with teammate Juan Martin del Potro, came out on the losing end to team led by Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez.

Now, the feuding is over with del Potro, who may be able to return from seven months off the tour following wrist surgery to play in Lyon. So, Nalbandian hopes to lead his nation to that long-coveted Davis Cup triumph.

"We try, but we didn't make it yet," he said Tuesday. "We are working on it."

Representing his country seems to get the burly Argentine going in a way that just playing for himself never can.

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