Every generation has its nominee for an award that is distinguished, but also frustrating: The best player to have not won a Grand Slam singles title. When it comes to men’s tennis, 2013 Roland Garros runner-up David Ferrer was most recently the worthy candidate of the ‘10s. In the ‘90s, consider Todd Martin, finalist at the ’94 Australian Open and ’99 US Open. In the wood racquet days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, one-time Slam finalists Dennis Ralston and Tom Okker contended for this honor.

Head to the ‘00s and ponder the skills of David Nalbandian. Armed with forceful groundstrokes off both sides, this Argentine hit the tennis radar in his teens. In the 1998 US Open junior final, the 16-year-old Nalbandian defeated the highly touted Roger Federer. Nalbandian’s mastery over Federer continued in the pros, as he won their first five ATP matches. In 2002, Nalbandian went all the way to the finals of Wimbledon. A year later, at the US Open, Nalbandian beat Federer in the round of 16 and lost in the semis to eventual champion Andy Roddick after holding a match point. At the ’05 Tennis Masters Cup, Nalbandian took the title, rallying from two sets to love down to beat Federer in a fifth-set tiebreaker. By the end of ’06, he’d reached the semis or better at all four majors.

But perhaps the greatest stretch of Nalbandian’s career came over a three-week period in the fall of 2007. Ranked as high as three in the world in March 2006, Nalbandian subsequently went into a tailspin. By October 2007, he’d slipped to 25 and arrived to play the Mutua Madrid Open having reached only one quarterfinal all year long.

Though Madrid now takes place in the spring on clay, in those days it was played on an indoor hard court. Nalbandian commenced his week with fine tennis, beating two superb players who reached Grand Slam singles finals, Arnaud Clement and Tomas Berdych. Then came a victory over his fellow Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro, who two years later would win the US Open.


WATCH: Diego Schwartzman has become the top-ranked Argentine in the years since Nalbandian's retirement.

But those triumphs were mere prologue to what was to come. In the quarterfinals, Nalbandian took just 71 minutes to beat Rafael Nadal, 6-1, 6-2. “Everything went right for me today,” Nalbandian said in a Reuters story. “I took advantage of all Rafa’s errors and he never felt comfortable, but I felt I played really well.”

In the semis he faced Djokovic, who’d won their only previous meeting, the prior summer in Montreal. This one went differently, Nalbandian winning 6-4, 7-6 (4). “Sometimes you play bad and he was on a roll,” said Djokovic, quoted in an ATP website story. “He won against Rafa and a lot of good players this week, so obviously he had a lot of confidence on the court and you could see that.”

Having lost all three of his previous Masters 1000 finals, Nalbandian was eager to at last break through. How fitting that the opponent would be none other than his longstanding rival, Federer. The Swiss maestro by this time had turned around their rivalry, winning five matches in a row. And when Federer won the first of the Madrid final, 6-1, a sixth seemed a strong possibility. But Nalbandian dug in and took the next two, 6-3, 6-3.

“I was very focused, knowing I’d have to play incredibly to win and everything went right for me,” Nalbandian was quoted as saying in the same story. “It was a big boost for me to beat so many good players here this week.”

No other player has beaten each member of the Big Three at the same tournament.

Amazingly, just two weeks later, at the Tennis Masters 1000 event in Paris, Nalbandian won the title, along the way once again beating Federer and Nadal.