Spain is clearly feeling very generous to the world of men’s tennis. Not only is she awash with a bucket-load of outstanding players, but has seen fit to share her bounty with a grateful world.
Rafael Nadal stands astride the men’s rankings like the ubiquitous bull that adorns Spanish banners wherever he plays. He even strides the courts with the swagger of his country’s mascot. You can almost see the steam burst from his nostrils.
But the Barcelona 500 event is packed to bursting with Spanish talent: No fewer than six seeds and nine non-seeds grace the draw.
David Ferrer is the terrier of the courts, dogged and disciplined, never knowing when he’s beaten, one of the most formidable clay court players on the tour.
The compact and wirey Spaniard looks almost surly during play, so intense is his focus. Yet off court, he has a gentle and modest attitude, enhanced by warm skin and hair tones, and the sort of smile that lights up a room.
Tommy Robredo is another Spaniard who is an asset to the aesthetics of the game. He has found renewed good form in 2009, taking clay court titles in Brazil and Argentina, reaching a semi in Chile and a quarter in Mexico.
He’s a fluid and elegant mover, able to bring great variety of game to the clay and also to make an impact on hard courts. He is slim, dark and angular, particularly striking with his newly cropped hair. He could have walked straight from the set of Carmen.
But the outstanding talent in the Spanish squad hit the headlines when it hammered Argentina in the Davis Cup last November. Both Nadal and Robredo missed the final with injury, and Ferrer had been seriously off-form for weeks.
Step up to the plate Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco, surely one of most eye-catching pairings on the tennis tour.
It was Lopez’s resilience in the face of Juan Martin del Potro that set this stunning tie alight. He has a dynamic all-court game, nimble and sharp. It comes as no surprise, looking at his style of play, that his life-long dream has been to win Wimbledon.
Then came the passionate pairing of a still-stunning Lopez with Verdasco to win the doubles rubber.
Finally Verdasco, clearly infected with his double’s partner’s win-at-all-costs virus, went on to win an arduous fourth rubber.
These handsome compatriots, both strapping 6'2" left-handers, have the kind of bone structure reserved for Greek statues: Chiselled cheeks, aquiline noses, and angular jawlines.
Feli and Fer—as these best of friends call themselves—bring together the two shades of the Mediterranean. Lopez has the golden hair and skin tones and the brilliant blue eyes that could mistake him for an Italian, while Verdasco revels in deep shades of black hair and the type of olive skin that turns copper when tanned.
And Verdasco has truly taken the Spanish limelight since that Davis Cup victory.
Dealt the double fortune of outstanding athletic ability and head-turning looks, Verdasco seemed, until last autumn, to let the latter do rather too much of the talking. He even, for a time, had the pin-up of the women’s tour—Ana Ivanovic—on his arm.
Then came the Davis Cup triumph, and Verdasco seemed to grow in stature with each passing day. The scales dropped from his eyes as the passion of tennis and top-flight success coursed through his veins. Suddenly he seemed to believe he could chase the ultimate compatriot, Nadal, towards the upper ranks.
He burst into 2009 with a new sense of purpose, improved physical conditioning and—it has to be said—an increasingly finely-honed physique.
What he’d done, with that new self-belief, was forsake his off-season in Spain for extra strength and conditioning work with his coach in the USA. He even poached some time with Darren Cahill from right under Roger Federer’s nose.
He began building on his already dynamic and aggressive baseline game. He improved on what is one of the best forehands on the tour: powerful, flat and fast, and particularly deadly down the line. But the most improved element of his 2009 game was his confidence.
It was probably no surprise to him that he reached the final of the first tournament of the year in Brisbane. But he suddenly hit tennis fans between the eyes in one of the outstanding matches of the year so far—the semi-final against Nadal in the Australian Open.
He’s since made the quarter-finals of each of the Masters 1000 events, and has lost only to one of the “big four” men. As a result, he’s now the world No. 7.
So Verdasco has a swathe of new admirers drawn not just by his considerable physical assets but by his exciting brand of tennis.
By all accounts, he’s also a funny and friendly member of the tour, and so accommodating with the press that he’s likened to Federer by many journalists.
It’s all too good to be true, and more than enough to forgive him for his rather excessive use of hair products and his shaved legs.
But there’s one more story about Verdasco that brings a smile to the face. He decided, last summer, to follow Robredo’s example in helping to raise awareness for the Everyman Male Cancer Campaign—by posing nude for a Cosmopolitan centrefold.
Now the thought of these two men baring all for charity brings us full circle in heart-felt gratitude to Spain for her generosity to the female world.
More entertaining still is that the photo shoot was conducted on a roof in central Barcelona—the city in which I recently spent a fabulous week, much of it gazing skywards at the wonderful architecture.
Had the timings been a little more benign, who knows what that skyline may have revealed!