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A Surprise Guest at Final Party

Wimbledon: Unheralded Nalbandian rallies and defeats Malisse to earn a shot against top-seeded Hewitt on Centre Court.

July 07, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WIMBLEDON, England — They say it takes years to come to terms with the grass at Wimbledon, with players slowly learning the vagaries of the surface during matches filled with trial and error.

Then there is David Nalbandian.

Conventional wisdom not only has been disproved--how about obliterated?--by Nalbandian of Argentina, who came to Wimbledon with no grass-court experience as a professional.

And now, incredibly and inexplicably, he will be playing in the Wimbledon final today against top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Nalbandian, a 20-year-old from Cordoba and the most surprising finalist here since Chris Lewis in 1983, is a match away from joining Thomas Johansson and Albert Costa as shocking winners in the Grand Slam tournaments of 2002.

"I cannot describe this," said Nalbandian, who dropped to his knees on the court after beating Xavier Malisse in their semifinal, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 1-6, 2-6, 6-2.

"I think this is the best week of my life. This is very great for me. For me, this is a dream."

He reached the final by winning the fifth set of his semifinal Saturday against Malisse of Belgium. Their match was suspended because of darkness after they played four sets Friday.

In the fifth, he fell behind a service break and rallied, breaking Malisse's serve three consecutive times. "He played well. He probably kept his nerve just a little better than I did, and that's why he's going through," Malisse said

Nalbandian eclipsed the Open-era mark of John McEnroe, who lost in the semifinals in 1977 in his Wimbledon debut and joked about never having lost here. As a junior, Nalbandian was defaulted from the semifinals in 1999 for arriving late.

Also, he will be playing on Centre Court for the first time. He was unruffled by that fact, pointing out before the semifinals he had been relegated to the secondary courts.

And he didn't plan on stepping on Centre Court on Saturday to get a feel for it. "It's fine. I don't need it," Nalbandian said.

He is the second Argentine man to reach a Grand Slam final. Guillermo Vilas won the French Open once, the U.S. Open once and the Australian Open twice.

This will be the youngest Wimbledon final in Open era history. Hewitt, who won the U.S. Open in September, turned 21 in February. In six matches, Hewitt has dropped only two sets, both against Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

The last Australian to win Wimbledon was Pat Cash in 1987, and Hewitt spoke of that after he beat Tim Henman in the semifinals.

"It's what kids dream of, sitting back at home," he said. "It's what every Australian kid who picks up a tennis racket dreams of, one day, to be in this situation. For me to have it at the moment, at age 21, it's incredible."

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