The journey begins.
After the recent finish to the years first major in Australia, I started to become nostalgic towards my visit to the 2004 Open championships. My recollections that caused this five year rewind to the 2004 Open where particularly heightened by the dramatic men’s semi-final clash between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco. The events that transpired between that epic match between Rafa and Fernando opened up the memory banks for me as I remembered the first time I stumbled upon Mr. Verdasco. Being the scouting tennis genius that I am (ya right), I was intrigued to check out this young Spaniard that I had been following in results only, as T.V. coverage was not part of the program for Verdasco at that point. The match which I wanted to see was a second round match between the relatively well known Andrei Pavel from Romania, and this skinny, obscure and a fragile youngster from Madrid named Verdasco. At the time, Pavel was ranked 18 in the world and Fernando was at a respective 36 on the computer. With that being said this match was not going to headline Ashe, Armstrong or even the Grandstand, for any amount of time during the tournament. But I didn’t care, as my objective as a tennis fan that day was to follow that tricky left handed Spaniard from Madrid, even if it took me all the way to court 17, which was very far away from Ashe stadium. FYI, the grounds of the Open only have 18 courts, as I wasn’t fooling myself here and I definatly needed assistance in locating the long route to viewing this encounter.My first impressions as I took down that mighty Open hotdog as I moved quickly not to miss any action,( BTW I know how lucky I was to get one of those suckers), was the fact that since I had just traveled to the outer limits of the tennis world to see a match, I would have my pick of any seat that I wanted, and I was certainly right on that one.I composed myself, and got ready to zero in on the tennis talent that was before me, and I was not disappointed. As the focus of my day was the 20-year old, pony tailed, colored wearing Spaniard, I could instantly see the vast potential that his game possessed. His forehand was explosive, his serve had pop, his movement was top notch, and even though he would go down in straight sets that afternoon at the hands of Pavel, I knew that this guy had a shot of becoming a great player.Just keeping in mind here that earlier in the day, I had seen this guy by the name of Rafael Nadal who was 17-years of age at the time, win on an outer court, therefore I had a pretty good gauge as to what talent was. To be honest, I was overly impressed with Nadal, but at the time Verdasco appeared to have more promise in his game. The one glaring weakness that I was concerned with was the lack of mental fortitude that Verdasco employed. Whenever he got close to winning a game, he would falter, either with an unforced error, or poor shot selection. The anxiety and lack of confidence was evident in his demeanor and sure enough that cloud of mental confusion would surround him for years to come. With an abundance of talent, and the shot making ability of the very best, would this Spaniard make it? I wasn’t sure to be honest.As the years passed and my constant trips to NYC became a staple during the calender year, I would make every effort to watch at least one Verdasco match,(although he would often end up playing only one match), he would continue to be a side court guy. His main stadium flair was not good enough to get him there, as his results were mediocre at best. Even though his hairstyles, racket companies and clothing sponsors would change, Fernando would still be relegated to side court action because the missing piece to a great tennis game, that being mental focus, was not yet found. From one year to another, the big hitting Spaniard could be found on courts 5-18, with no indication that he would have a date with the famed Ashe or Armstrong courts. I kept asking myself is this every going to change? Recent history and Verdasco’s form at this years Aussie Open certainly do indicate that the Spaniard is a different man nowadays.The turning point.Verdasco’s new reach for success gesture, surely helped him along the way during his Aussie Open journey.
When a tennis fan walks into the grounds of the U.S.T.A. National Tennis Center in late August for the U.S. Open, they must first get over the initial magnitude of the enormous presence which is the years final major. After they have excepted that the Open is more than just a tennis tournament, questions that may come to one’s mind might be where is Arthur Ashe stadium, or where can I get one of those famous food court hot dogs? Undoubtedly the last thought that occurs to most individuals is to make sure they catch a side court match, as the main stadium affairs are where the games stars can be found. Simply put, side courts do not fancy too many tennis folk. However for the keen and inquisitive tennis mind, side court action is what encompasses the meat and potatoes of grand slam action.
Verdasco jestures to his corner during Aussie Open clash with Nadal
Let us revisit the end of last year and the 2008 Davis Cup final. With a Nadal-less team traveling to Argentina, the Spaniards had their backs against a great wall which was led by top ten players David Nalbandian and Juan Martin Del Potro. All eyes would once again be on Verdasco and company to attempt to carry Spain to it’s third D.C title. Expectations would be high, and with Fernando never being one to react well to pressure, victory was a slim reality. However, what happened during Verdasco’s two Davis Cup rubbers, will be remembered as the turning point in his career. In particular his match with Jose Acasuso, where Fernando was down two sets to one finally allowed the him to learn what he was really made of. That was where a different look in the eyes of Verdasco arose, a look of relief and detachment from the years of pressure he had endured, which were mostly self inflicted. He began to focus on the one thing that every tennis player should engage in, which is to have a desire to compete at the highest possible level and except the consequences of those actions. Verdasco played and won that rubber with the talent and confidence that many knew he had. He has not looked back since. As Verdasco propelled the Spanish team to their third Cup victory, he also ignited an inner belief in himself that the tennis world should get ready to usher in a new star.
There is more to the story however of how Verdasco obtained his current ranking of nine in the world. During the off season, Fernando ventured off to the scared training grounds in Las Vegas of former number one and eight time grand slam winner Andre Agassi. Specifically, Verdasco was in need of Agassi’s world class trainer, mentor and long time friend, Gil Reyes. With the mental and physical side of the game needing work in order to take Verdasco to the next level, he was adamant on obtaining the right information to progress to the highest echelons of the game. As Verdasco trained hard for those two weeks in Vegas, diligently absorbing all that Reyes had to say, perhaps the final glue towards the new Verdasco foundation could be attributed to a candid conversation that the Spaniard had with Agassi, during his final day. Verdasco would not share the details of their conversation, as it is clear that whatever the great Agassi said to Fernando, certainly paid off. Verdasco has stated that Agassi was his idol growing up and that the kind words and support that the American offered him were truly career changing.
As we look forward to a great 2009 season and the progress of Verdasco, a saddened thought comes into my mind as I think of his future. Although it appears as though his side court days are all but over, I will certainly miss the search that was required to see him play year in an year out at the Open. Perhaps even more of a lost art is the forgotten struggle and doubt he possessed with his inner self as he would crush forehands at the mercy of his opponents. I certainly hope that I am right on this one, as I will bite the bullet and gladly watch Verdasco in any main stadium around the world. However as I recall that eerie sound of Verdasco hitting the top of tape with a double fault on match point against Nadal, that long and enjoyable walk towards court 17, does not seem that far away.