The most unique aspect of the Australian Open is not its DecoTurf surface or even its oppressive heat. What really sets the AO apart from tennis’ other major events is its place on the calendar.
Because it takes place in January, following an off-season of at least a month (and a few minor warmup events), its results have the least amount of continuity with the rest of the year.
As the year-long pro tennis schedule grinds on and on, only the best and most reliable players can put up consistent results at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The month-long off-season that precedes the AO, however, throws the door open a bit wider.
A few of the game’s all-time greats have taken advantage of this: Following his 1991 AO victory, Boris Becker attributed his success to having gone Down Under weeks in advance to practice there. Five years later he’d duplicate that result, capturing his final major.
As Andre Agassi grew more advanced in years it became harder for him to maintain results year-round, but he was always a threat at the AO, winning his last three majors there.
Lately, though, the players who’ve most benefited from the AO’s scheduling have had credentials far slighter than Becker or Agassi. They have been free-swinging big-hitters who lack the fitness or mental fortitude to be world-beaters year-round, but arrive in Melbourne trim and on a roll.
The first of their big upsets are usually passed off as a shortcoming from the higher-ranked player. In 2006, Andy Roddick was out of sorts when he lost to Marcos Baghdatis in round 4.
Lleyton Hewitt was past his prime when Fernando Gonzalez beat him in round 3 the next year. Andy Murray was not quite ready for prime time when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stunned him in round 1 last year.
After that, though, momentum took over. Baghdatis outdueled two top-10 players in Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian, both in five sets. Gonzalez dismissed James Blake, Rafael Nadal and Tommy Haas in succession, all without dropping a set. Tsonga handily beat Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny and Nadal.
Because of the reliability of today’s best players, none of these men went on to become Grand Slam champions. In ’06 and ’07, order came from Roger Federer, whose complete game and winner’s instincts cooled Baghdatis’ and Gonzalez’s hot runs. Last year, when mononucleosis weakened Federer, world No. 3 Novak Djokovic took up the standard of continuity and beat Tsonga.
Going into this year’s event, the question wasn’t so much, “Will there be a hard-hitting dark horse?” but “Who will be the hard-hitting dark horse?” Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Robin Soderling and a few others looked like contenders. It tends to come from where the public eye isn’t looking, however.
Once again, our surging outsider has announced himself by making Andy Murray his victim. Though the Scot was considered by many (including this writer) to be the Australian Open favorite, he was outplayed in the round of 16 by the left-handed Spaniard who is (guess what?) a heavy hitter.
A few years ago, Roddick told the press that Verdasco, now 25, may have the biggest forehand in the game (someday, he, Gonzalez, Monfils and Tomas Berdych really need to get together and settle that for good). Even so, the young Spaniard has thus far primarily been known for his good looks.
Though the winner of a pair of clay court titles, his biggest win so far in his career came in November, when he defeated Jose Acasuso to clinch Spain’s Davis Cup triumph over Argentina.
Building on that result, Verdasco enlisted the help of Gil Reyes, the trainer largely responsible for Agassi’s preparation before past AO victories.
Having used his off-season to get fitter than ever, Verdasco prepared for the major by playing the Kooyong Classic exhibition, where he pushed eventual champion Federer to a third-set tiebreaker before falling in the semis.
The increasingly confidant Spaniard destroyed the quirky, dangerous Radek Stepanek in round 3, losing four games in set one and none thereafter. Following that, he upset Murray, making 74 percent of his first serves during their five sets.
He then beat Tsonga in four, frustrating the Frenchman’s attempts to transition from dark horse to perennial contender.
In the semis, he will join established commodities Nadal, Federer, and Roddick. His status as the tourney’s final surprise also assures that he is this year’s dark horse, its dream run.
But this dream will die. Maybe Verdasco’s countryman Nadal will end it in the semis. True, Nadal fell victim to the dark horses Gonzalez and Tsonga during their runs, but the world No. 1 has never looked better in a hard court major.
Furthermore, Gonzalez and Tsonga didn’t have 0-6 records against Nadal, as Verdasco does.
Even if he did somehow overcome his more famous compatriot, Verdasco would likely face the very barometer of stability in the final. Federer, who is overwhelmingly favored against Roddick, is 2-0 against Verdasco, and that doesn’t even count the Kooyong exo.
Given the scintillating form of both Nadal and Federer in this tournament so far (plus their head-to-head history), a final between them seems the ideal way of starting the year.
No disrespect to Verdasco, who has obviously worked very hard to be in this position, but seeing yet another underdog get throttled in the final by Federer is not what tennis needs now.
After the attention Federer and Nadal brought to the game in their Wimbledon final, a follow-up act from them would be the ideal way to start the year. Let’s hope that Nadal can break the mold at this year’s AO.
But let’s also hope that Verdasco can also end the trend established by other dark horses and be competitive all year long.