Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Verdasco's Australian adventure

Welcome to "Rishi's Retrospective", a new idea of mine which revisits a sporting event from the past and analyses both the event itself and what has happened subsequently. The intention, loosely speaking, is to have an event each month which is relevant to the month in question. So for example, the entry for January will focus on an event in January from years gone by. However, this may not always be the case.

Fernando Verdasco hit the ground running in
2009 with this run to the Australian Open
semi-finals. Photo: Getty Images
Historically, the Australian Open has always offered the biggest chance for a surprise package to come through and win a Grand Slam, or have a strong run during the fortnight. This was common in the Men's Singles during the 1970s and 80s, when many top players didn't frequent the event, but continued even beyond then after they all started turning up! Examples include 1999, when Yevgeny Kafelnikov faced off against Thomas Enqvist; 2002, when Enqvist's fellow Swede Thomas Johansson was a surprise winner; 2006, when Greek-Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis lit up Melbourne with a brilliant run to the final; and 2007, when Fernando Gonzalez reached his only Grand Slam final. After a spell in more recent years where big names and top seeds populated the last four of the event the 2014 edition, which finished on Sunday (January 26th), was a blast-from-the-past. Stanislas Wawrinka won his maiden Grand Slam, topping a fortnight which featured upsets in both men's and women's singles - where Li Na won her first Australian Open title against Dominika Cibulkova, who was in her first final, and where Eugenie Bouchard (first semi-final!) starred.

So it is perhaps appropriate to make the first Rishi's Retrospective a flashback to a breakthrough Australian Open run from a few years ago; to wit, Fernando Verdasco in the 2009 edition of the event. The roots of Verdasco's run actually dated back to end of 2008 with that year's Davis Cup final, contested between Spain and Argentina. Rafael Nadal had had a superb year after winning the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympic gold medal, not to mention the world number one ranking for the first time in his career. However, injury after such a gruelling and enormous year (even by his standards) meant he was unavailable for the final for Spain. After going 1-0 down, Feliciano Lopez beat a young Juan Martin del Potro to level the tie, before teaming up with Verdasco in the doubles to put Spain 2-1 ahead with a straight sets win over David Nalbandian and Agustin Calleri. Nalbandian was arguably the cream of the crop, and likely to beat Lopez if the event went to a decider (the fifth match). Therefore the pressure was high on Verdasco, who was playing Jose Acasuso (replacing del Potro) in the fourth game of the tie. The stakes were high, and the match was tense. Fernando won the first set but Acasuso edged a 2nd set tie-break and won the third, leaving him one set away from winning and forcing the decider. However, Verdasco dug deep and, after a mixed year, managed to come up trumps by winning the last two sets for a 6-3 6-7 (3-7) 4-6 6-2 6-1 victory. It was an emotional experience for the then-25 year-old: "It's maybe the most beautiful day of my life - I tried my best to win the Davis Cup and I'm happy for everyone in Spain."

Verdasco promptly went off to the winter break with his tail up, and worked extremely hard in the off-season near his idol Andre Agassi's base in Las Vegas with the American's former fitness coach Gil Reyes. The results were immediate, with a run to the final of the Brisbane International opening the 2009 season and then three straightforward wins in the opening week at Melbourne Park. However, he was still expected to fall short in his fourth round match against Andy Murray. The Briton had had a breakthrough 2008 of his own, winning Masters titles in Cincinnati and Madrid and reaching the final of the 2008 US Open. He had also started 2009 by winning the Qatar Open, where he beat Roger Federer en route, and if anything was the tournament favourite for the Australian Open. The match ebbed and flowed; Murray blasted out of the blocks to win the first set, Verdasco turned the tables in the second but Andy won the third convincingly to make it look business as usual. However, Verdasco drew into the belief he had gained from the Davis Cup win, as well as the work he'd put in during pre-season, and he kept going for his shots. At this stage of his career, Murray tended to run the risk of being too passive, leaving him vulnerable to players who went for their shots against him and managed to pull them off. Thus it came to pass as Fernando won the fourth and fifth sets to take a dramatic victory. Perhaps the point that best encapsulates the contrast in styles occurred with Verdasco facing one of many break points during a marathon 3-2 game in the fifth set. Starting at about 17:05 (17 mins, 5 secs) in this clip, Verdasco really hustles Murray around the court, dominating the rally and finishing it off with a smash under pressure. He went on to hold serve, broke in the very next game, and won the game 2-6 6-1 1-6 6-3 6-4.

I was of course disappointed for Murray (and maybe would've been less sanguine if I knew that his maiden Grand Slam title would have to wait for almost four more years!) but at the same time I couldn't help but feel happy for Fernando; it was really nice to see a guy I'd wanted to do well for a couple of years break free of the shackles which had been holding back, and hence break into new territory at a major event. The run continued as well, with victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Quarter-Finals setting up a Semi-Final against compatriot Nadal. In one of the greatest semi-finals the event has seen, the two went toe-to-toe with some of the most brutal hitting and high-revolution topspin you are ever likely to see (both are left-handed thus can generate a lot of topspin). Fernando struck first by taking the first set on a tie-break but Nadal dug deep to take the next two. Verdasco won the fourth set on a tie-break to take the match to a deciding set but Nadal just had enough to win it 6-4 for a 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 7-6 (7-2) 6-7 (1-7) 6-4 win, with the clock by now well past midnight local time.

On Sunday evening, Nadal beat Federer in five dramatic sets to take his only Australian Open title to date (after his defeat in Sunday's final by Wawrinka in four sets). Verdasco would never get closer to a Grand Slam final, but his breakthrough run in Melbourne did usher in an 2-season period where he featured much more prominently at the top of the game. While often seeded in the 15-25 positions before then, he spent most of 2009 in the Top 8 and consequently qualified for the end-of-year ATP World Tour Finals. He won three of his five ATP titles during this period at New Haven (summer 2009), San Jose (early 2010) and Barcelona (spring 2010). Additionally, he reached the second week of all four Slams in 2009 and reached the Quarter-Finals of the US Open in both 2009 and 2010 (in the latter year he beat David Ferrer in another five-set thriller en route). However, following on from that things have been harder for the Spaniard. Confidence had always been an issue pre-2008 Davis Cup and issues returned as 2010 turned to 2011; in particular, minor but persistent attacks of the 'yips' in his serve were a hindrance. He kept trying hard, but the belief ebbed and his ranking kept plummeting and, while he has reached five ATP finals since the start of 2011, he has failed to win any of them (previously, he had won 5 out of 13 finals, a respectable if still imperfect record).

Suddenly, at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, buoyed by a change of coach, he had a surprise run to the Quarter-Finals. Again, he faced Murray and this time he took a two-sets-to-love lead. However, an older, wiser, more assertive Murray would not make the same mistake again and fought back to win in five sets en route to taking his first Wimbledon title. This time, Verdasco's bounce has been less pronounced and his ranking is again on a downward path after defeat in the 2nd Round in Australia to journeyman player Teymuraz Gabashvili. With his supreme hitting power, and the topspin he can generate, there is definitely an argument that Fernando should have achieved more in the game to date. Certainly I believe he should have won more ATP titles - his current win-loss record in finals is very much on the disappointing side given his calibre and it would have been nice to see him maybe win a Masters 1000 event or reach another couple of ATP World Tour Finals.

However, it must also be said that Fernando's achievements in the game are still not insignificant and, in broad terms, he does indeed have much to be proud of - particularly that magnum opus of a fortnight in Melbourne Park five years ago, and his role in the 2008 Davis Cup win. I also do not subscribe to the view, espoused by some, that he should have become a dominant force in the game. Yes, it is true that he has some fearsome weapons which have the potential to worry even the greatest players of this great era. However, the thing about being a player who goes for his shots is that you need to make those shots very often to be a serial winner in the game. In this era, with supreme athletes like Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Murray and Ferrer assertively getting so many balls back in court, players like Verdasco have to take ever greater risks and it is in my view unrealistic to expect that kind of approach to work successfully on a consistent basis. Only Federer, with his greater mix of shots and with his artistry, has really pulled it off (although maybe there is hope for Wawrinka to follow suit) and even then his head-to-head record with great rival Nadal is 23-10 in the Mallorcan's favour. Hopefully Verdasco, aged 30 now, still has an ATP title or two left in him if he can re-find his form (even if only in patches). A repeat of Melbourne, however, is unlikely - though tennis fans like myself will always remember his 2009 run with a warm smile.

1 comment:

  1. I love the way Rishi in his typical British way supports a sporting underdog. His blog on Verdasco is written in his inimical style of a mixture of thorough analysis of the man and the sport. His write up is extremely interesting.