Shocking line-up in that semifinal at the time: two young players – Malisse 22 y.o. & Nalbandian 20 y.o. – both operating mainly from the baseline (uncommon style in the Wimbledon semis until 2002), for whom a major quarterfinal had already been a career-best result, like a little dream that came true. And all of a sudden one of them could play in the final of the most prestigious event in the world! Malisse was a big favorite even though ranked three places lower: more experienced guy overall, defeated better players en route to the semis (Kafelnikov, Rusedski, Krajicek in three previous matches) and simply looked like a more natural grass-court player with faster serve and faster ground-strokes… It was very bizarre encounter [the victor won more points (12) even though won fewer games (2) which is extreme rarity] with two monumental twists. Due to persistent rain the match was rescheduled from Centre Court to Court No. 1. They began at 4:30 p.m. and Malisse was constantly touching his chest with a grimace on his face in the initial games. By majority of people and possibly himself he was supposed to win the contest, so despite the problems he somehow served for the opener at 5:4. He lost it 2/7 in the tie-break though, and took a medical time-out leaving the court. According to the rules, it should have lasted 3 minutes, he came back after 10 minutes still struggling. Nalbandian led 7-6, 4:2 on return… in that moment two scenarious were probable: he could win in straight sets or by Malisse’s retirement at the beginning of the 3rd set… and then the rain came. The rain-break lasted almost two hours, they returned on court at 7:30 p.m. and the Belgian didn’t show any signs of his physical problems. Actually he was playing exactly like spectators who had seen his wins over top players in the fortnight, could expect – he was dominating Nalbandian in all departments, especially in the service one: no more problems with the chest meant increased speed of the 1st serve and much more cheap points. Admittedly when they restarted, a “2:2” score gave the 2nd set to the Argentine, nonetheless Malisse after the resumption gathered 14 out of 19 games. He levelled at two sets a piece being ‘on fire’, Nalbandian seemed hopeless in the upcoming 5th set… The second huge twist occurred then – the match was suspended due to darkness at 8:58 p.m. Certainly it was a favorable decision for the Argentine; they could play a few more games with the sunset, perhaps Malisse could go to sleep having a comfortable break advantage in the decider… As they came back on court the following day, it was a 50/50 situation I’d say. Malisse not able to continue his momentum while Nalbandian as a clever player (the following years confirmed it), drew some conclusions. The Belgian broke first, led 2:1, yet for a few minutes played worse tennis than a day before when he was struggling with his chest – lost nine straight points! He was broken twice in a row, then manufactured a double break point – missed two casual returns though, like he didn’t feel the importance of the situation, like he was just playing a practice set instead of the potentially most vital set of his career (what we know now in retrospect). Nalbandian held, and with a three-game cushion he played more aggressively than in the entire semifinal – it worked, he got the final game at 15 converting his first match point with a drop-volley – it meant amazing sensation – a guy who hadn’t played a main-level grass-court event before, out of nowhere advanced to the Grand Slam final! That semifinal defined careers of both participants: Nalbandian was in ascendency for the next few years while Malisse never even played another major quarterfinal; nevertheless in many years of successful career Nalbandian didn’t enter another Grand Slam final, being close to achieve that in all other three majors where he theoretically fitted better to the finals with his game-style – as a favorite lost semifinals in Melbourne (to Baghdatis) and Paris (to Gaudio), as an underdog squandered a match point to be beaten in controversial circumstances in New York (by Roddick).
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