WASHINGTON (AP) — Confident as David Nalbandian is, he harbored some doubts about how he would play at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.
After all, he was ranked 117th after missing about 12 of the past 15 months because of injuries. He hadn’t played in a tournament since April. He needed a wild-card invitation merely to get into the field.
A week later, he leaves as the hard-court tournament’s champion—and someone to watch at the U.S. Open.
Argentina’s Nalbandian became the first player ranked outside the top 100 to win an ATP title in 2010, using his typically strong service returns and effective baseline game to beat No. 25 Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus 6-2, 7-6 (4) on Sunday in a Legg Mason final between two past Grand Slam finalists.
"If he plays like that," Baghdatis said, "he can beat a lot of guys in the top 10."
It’s Nalbandian’s 11th career title, but his first on U.S. soil, and first anywhere in 1 1/2 years. He hadn’t entered a tournament since April, sidelined by a bad left hamstring. Before that, Nalbandian missed nearly 10 months starting in May 2009 because of hip surgery.
"I didn’t expect to win my first tournament," Nalbandian said. "In the beginning, if I had to bet, I (wouldn’t have) bet on myself, of course."
Perhaps. But the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up is back on tour and back to giving opponents fits, particularly with his returning. He broke four of the first seven times Baghdatis served.
"He’s putting a lot of pressure on the return," said Baghdatis, who twisted his left ankle in the semifinals Saturday and said he felt pain early in the final.
Baghdatis had a chance to extend the match while leading 6-5 in the second set. He held a set point at 30-40 on Nalbandian’s serve, but put a forehand into the net on a 10-stroke exchange. Nalbandian eventually held serve there, then surged to a 5-0 lead in the tiebreaker.
"Basically," Baghdatis would say later, "that’s it."
Well, not quite: Baghdatis won the next three points. Plus, Nalbandian had problems with his serve throughout the second set—he faced 11 break points, although he saved all but two—and he hit his seventh double-fault of the day on his first match point. But Baghdatis then missed a forehand to end the match after 1 hour, 59 minutes.
Nalbandian has reached at least the semifinals five times at major championships, and was ranked as high as No. 3. But all of the recent time off, including skipping the past six Grand Slam tournaments, contributed to a slide down the rankings that dropped him to 161st.
He’s climbing his way up, expected to return to the top 50 on Monday. The unseeded Nalbandian was impressive all week, winning 12 of 13 sets while upsetting four seeded players: No. 4 Marin Cilic, No. 7 Stanislas Wawrinka, No. 13 Gilles Simon, and No. 8 Baghdatis, who lost to Roger Federer in the 2006 Australian Open final.
Asked if he feels as though he’s playing like someone who’s in the top 10, Nalbandian said: "So far, the ranking doesn’t say so, but I think I won some great matches and that’s what counts."
Nalbandian won Sunday’s prematch coin toss and chose to receive, a relatively rare strategy at this level, but one that makes sense. He long has been considered one of the game’s top returners and entered Sunday having broken opponents in a tournament-best 59 percent of their service games during the week.
And Nalbandian went right to work on Baghdatis, breaking at love in the opening game with the help of a forehand return winner. The match was a minute old, but the tone was set.
Cheered by dozens of fans waving Argentina’s blue-and-white flag, Nalbandian gave his country a third consecutive title in Washington. Juan Martin del Potro won the tournament in 2008 and 2009—following up the latter with a U.S. Open championship—but he has been out since January because of right wrist surgery and didn’t enter.
Based on Nalbandian’s performances this week, it seems likely that players will hope to avoid facing him on the U.S. Open’s hard courts, where action begins Aug. 30.
"If I continue playing this good," Nalbandian said Sunday, looking ahead to Flushing Meadows, "I have chances to go very far."
NOTES: Mardy Fish of the United States and Mark Knowles of the Bahamas won the doubles title, beating Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic 4-6, 7-6 (7), 10-7 tiebreak.