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Looking back on the career of Roger Federer and asking who his major rivals have been, you immediately look at Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt.

But there is one name that deserves to be right up there, and that is Argentine David Nalbandian.

The current coach of Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanovic was one of the most formidable players throughout the Naughties and saluted at some of the biggest events on the ATP calendar, not to mention peaking as high as number three in the rankings.

He was a prodigious talent, reaching a tour level final in every year from 2001 to his retirement year in 2013 and caused problems for each member of the Big Three in Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

When it comes to his matchups with the Swiss Maestro, Federer won the head-to-head count 11-8, one of the more even records in the 20-time major winner’s illustrious career.

The rivalry commenced very early when both were juniors, Federer a seriously gifted talent with wavering mood swings that were detrimental to his performance, and Nalbandian a steely competitor not willing to lie down.

It was the final Grand Slam of 1998 at the US Open and the Argentine was set to face an in form Federer in the junior boy’s singles final, with the Swiss 17-year-old fresh off the Wimbledon championship a few months prior.

However, it was the Cordoba born 16-year-old that would clinch a junior major of his own with a 6-3 7-5 win, foreshadowing the trouble that he would cause his long time counterpart in years to come.

The pair would meet just three months later at the coveted Orange Bowl, a prestigious junior event held in Florida each year that has seen the likes of Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Roddick, Soderling, Baghdatis, Thiem, Dementieva, Wozniacki, Kontaveit and Zvonareva win among many others.

This time it was Federer who would salute 6-4 6-2 in this semifinal encounter, progressing through to defeat Nalbandian’s compatriot Guillermo Coria in the title decider.

Moving to the pro circuit and it would be over three years until the pair met again and it came at the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 in 2002, where Nalbandian would smoke Federer 6-2 6-1 in a dominant second round performance.

Fast forward to the Basel semi later that year, Federer’s home deck and an event he would go on to win ten times, but the Argentinean, who was a Grand Slam finalist already after a shock Wimbledon run, was undeterred taking home a 6-7 7-5 6-3 win en route to just his second ATP title.

Three months later and the pair duelled in a classing Australian Open fourth round, with Nalbandian again prevailing 6-3 in the fifth set, would Federer ever beat him?

It would be August 2003 when they would meet again, at Cincinnati, which would be another of Federer’s happy hunting grounds in the future.

The Swiss star was finally a major champion after being crowned at the All England Club, and fighting fiercely with Andy Roddick for the number one ranking.

The second round match was welcomed for fans with the Argentine fresh off a Canadian Open final showing the week prior, and Nalbandian had no qualms in sending Federer back down to earth with a 7-6 7-6 win.

Then came the US Open, questions were being asked if Federer could achieve the Wimbledon-US double, which he would achieve the next four years, but in the fourth round he would meet the man who was quickly becoming a nemesis, you guessed it, Nalbandian.

It was the fifth meeting between the pair, and the fifth time that the Argentine would defeat Federer, winning a tight four-set contest after losing the opener.

The Swiss World No.2 would get a sixth chance to record a tour level win over Nalbandian when the ATP Finals rolled around, then under the moniker ‘Tennis Masters Cup’.

Brimming with confidence after a title in Vienna, Federer would finally break his duck and conquer the unconquered, winning 6-3 6-0 in the round robin stage on his way to the first of his six ATP Finals crowns.

They would meet at the 2004 Australian Open and 2005 US Open quarterfinals, and in amidst of one of tennis’ all time purple patches, the Swiss Maestro took both encounters, Melbourne in four and New York in three as he went on to win both trophies.

Leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in the rankings, it was expected that Federer would take home yet another ATP Finals title when the elite eight congregated in Shanghai for the final event of the year.

When he played Nalbandian in the round robin stages, he would take a fourth straight win over his rival in a three-set battle to top his group and progress to the final.

Federer looked in ominous form, dispatching of Gaston Gaudio 6-0 6-0 to reach the final, where he would take to the court against Nalbandian again after he navigated his way through his own semi against Nikolay Davydenko.

The final of the tournament was best of five sets back in those days, as opposed to three and when Federer took the first two in tiebreaks, the inevitable seemed incoming as he had only lost three matches that entire season.

However, with the Swiss labouring with an ankle injury, Nalbandian snatched the next two for the loss of just three games and proved to be too good in the clutch moments to take home a mammoth contest 6-7 6-7 6-2 6-1 7-6 for the biggest trophy of his career.

It would not be until May when Federer could aim to extract his revenge, meeting his foe on the Roman clay with the winner to face Rafael Nadal in the final.

Federer would take the match in ironically a final set tiebreak before setting up another semifinal clash with Nalbandian at the French Open later that month.

After falling in the 2005 semi, the man dubbed ‘ The Fed Express’ was aiming to reach the decider in Paros for the first time, so it was only appropriate that he met a player that had troubled him in the past, and boy did Nalbandian start in that fashion.

A second major final beckoned for the Argentine as he claimed the opening set, but a stomach injury plagued the rest of his match and he was forced to retire in the third.

Federer had finally levelled the head-to-head at six apiece after falling in the opening five contests.

He would pull ahead to an 8-6 buffer after dispatching Nalbandian in the Madrid semi later that year, and emerge victorious from a set down in the Tennis Masters Cup round robin stage.

It would be almost another year before they would face off again, and it was in the Spanish capital for the second straight year.

Nalbandian had overcome Djokovic and Nadal in successive contests before facing Federer, who would race away with the opening set before the Argentine stormed back to seal what is now a famous title, being the only player to defeat The Big Three in the same event.

He would back it up again the next week, dispatching Federer and Nadal as he claimed back-to-back Masters 1000 events in a fortnight that is still spoken about to this very day.

All of a sudden, his head-to-head with Federer was back at 8-8.

Paris would be the last time Nalbandian would defeat the 103-time champion on the ATP Tour, with Federer only dropping one more set in their next three meetings, that being in Monte Carlo in 2008.

The then 13-time major winner defeated the former World No.3 in the Basel final later that season, with their final meeting taking place at the All England Club in 2011, with Federer taking home a 6-4 6-2 6-4 win and an 11-8 victory in the head-to-head race.

It was a rivalry overlooked a little in the Naughties, but when Roger Federer faced David Nalbandian on court, everyone just knew the contest would be fierce, and some of the moments created by the pair are still held in the highest of regard by tennis fans across the globe.


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