Former World No. 3 David Nalbandian has not watched much tennis in recent years. When the 2005 Tennis Masters Cup champion agreed to join Miomir Kecmanovic’s team on a part-time basis, he had to search his house to find a racquet. The 11-time ATP Tour champion has focussed on driving a rally car and pursuing other hobbies, such as polo — he owns 50 polo horses — since his retirement in 2013.
But Monday, the day after Novak Djokovic defeated Daniil Medvedev for his record-extending ninth Australian Open title, the Argentine watched the championship match in his room at the Cordoba Open tournament hotel. There aren’t many players who can say they have enjoyed success against the Big Three of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but Nalbandian is one of them.
Before Medvedev beat the top three players in the FedEx ATP Rankings — Djokovic, Nadal and Dominic Thiem — to win last year’s Nitto ATP Finals, the last man to accomplish the feat at any event was Nalbandian at the 2007 Mutua Madrid Open. On that occasion, the Argentine beat Nadal, Djokovic and Federer consecutively. Two weeks later, he defeated Federer and Nadal en route to the Rolex Paris Masters crown.
Nalbandian believes Medvedev’s run at The O2 last year showed what is possible.
“That showed that everybody can beat them,” Nalbandian said. “Good players can beat them. It is not impossible work. Sometimes it’s good for new players to start believing in themselves. They’re incredible players, but they’re not superheroes. The new generation has to start believing in themselves.”
Relive Nalbandian’s 2005 Shanghai Win vs. Federer
That doesn’t mean Nalbandian doesn’t have the utmost respect for the legendary trio, against whom he won a combined 11 matches. The last time the Argentine played one of them was in a loss against Nadal at 2013 Sao Paulo.
“Most of the players think that they’re waiting for the Big Three to retire,” Nalbandian said, before cracking a lengthy laugh. “I say, ‘I was already waiting in my time and they’re still around!’ Let’s stop waiting and beat them.”
One of the things that impresses Nalbandian the most about the Big Three is not just their longevity, but how they all continue to get better. Djokovic, 33 and Nadal, 34, are still the top two players in the FedEx ATP Rankings, and Federer most recently won a Grand Slam at the 2018 Australian Open, when the Swiss was 36.
“It’s incredible the way that they adapt to the new players and their age, because they’re getting older,” Nalbandian said. “They’re still on, they’re still focussed, they’re still inspired to keep going. That’s amazing. That’s why there are only three players who can do that. It’s Roger, Rafa and Nole. The others can’t do that. Nobody.”
It’s easy to forget that Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have all struggled with injury at points during their career. But they have always persevered to find ways to compete against — and in many cases, beat — the best players in the world.
“They are winning people. They’re born like that, they work for that, they’re ready for that. They always will find the way, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is,” Nalbandian said. “If the difficulty is high, they find a higher level and will be better than that. That’s unbelievable and something few people can do.”
Nalbandian, who tallied an 11-20 record against the Big Three, said he had to use different shots and tactics against each of the stars.
“First of all, they’re never going to lose the match, you have to beat them. Second, you have to be perfect on the tactics and then the execution of the tactics,” Nalbandian said. “Maybe you know how to play, but they are good players. They are not going to allow you to play the way you want to. It’s a combination of both things.”
When asked whether he expected their continued success long after he departed the ATP Tour, Nalbandian laughed. “No way,” he said. “No chance.”
“I think Nole could win the most Grand Slams, I believe so,” Nalbandian said, referring to Djokovic. “He’s too complete.”