Not everyone may agree with me, but I think that the meetings between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco this year have produced some of the most thrilling matches in the world of men's tennis.
With every tournament that comes around, the tennis community is constantly abuzz with talk of a possible final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Unfortunately, the two have not met since Australia as “Roger’s place” in the finals of each event since Oz has been filled by either Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. In fact, even “Rafael’s place” was taken in Miami!
Of course we cannot constantly expect a Roger and Rafa show-down in the finals of every event. Perhaps it is even a gift in disguise that these two have not been meeting in more finals as it means that when they do, it is a rare treat.
It would also be unfair to dismiss Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray so easily when both have proven time and time again the standard of tennis they are capable of. They too have given the world of tennis plenty to be excited about.
But I what I really want to do is say: “Thank you Señor Verdasco!”
Fernando is one of the few players outside of the top four who I know will give me a match worth watching when he is up against the world No. 1. The two (aesthetically pleasing) players seem to bring out the best tennis from each other. It is almost like watching a brotherly rivalry. Each player respects the other but desperately wants to win—resulting in a captivating formula.
Therefore, I was very much looking forward to their quarter-final match-up in Madrid on Friday evening.
I was not deceived by the head-to-head numbers going into this match (eight wins out of eight meetings for Rafa) as Fernando is a different player since that semi-final encounter in Australia. Confidence can work wonders in sport and since his mind-blowing performance in Oz, Fernando has consistently been making the quarter-finals of events.
At the start of the match I was interested to see who the Spanish crowd would be supporting—the “local-boy-who-done-good” or the national hero. From where I was sitting (in front of the TV in the UK) it sounded like most of the screaming was for the hero.
The first set was fairly uneventful. In the fourth game of the set Fernando got himself into a spot of trouble. He was 0-40 down on his own service game, giving Rafa three break points.
Fernando managed to hold tight and save all three break points to take the score to two games all. (At this point the camera scanned to Uncle Toni who had his “poker face” on…and no, I do not mean that he was listening to Lady Gaga’s latest offering.)
From then on both men held their serve. The level of tennis was astounding. Shots were being traded from the baseline, corner to corner, with balls landing "just in" on the white lines with barely a millimetre to spare. Rafa was up to his usual antics of returning balls which no other human would possibly be able to reach, whilst Fernando was busy amazing the crowds with his deadly forehand.
However, it was not a big surprise when Rafa finally broke Fernando’s serve in the 10th game to take the set, 6-4, in 47 minutes. It was as if he had been waiting for the moment to pounce…and pounce he did.
The second set was where the excitement really began though. Fernando did the unthinkable breaking Rafa not once, but twice, to go 4-0 up!
Admittedly Rafa was making more mistakes than usual—he managed to hit quite a few balls wide and long; these were “proper” miss hits as some of the balls were a good few inches out. In particular, a poorly timed smash which landed in the net sticks in my mind as an indication that not all of Rafa’s superpowers were completely working in the match.
However, full credit has to go to Verdasco who played some amazing tennis and took full advantage of Rafa’s momentary lapse, for that is all it turned out to be…momentary.
It was not exactly clear to me what happened after Verdasco was in the lead by four games to love. Perhaps Rafa woke up? Perhaps Fernando became too complacent? Perhaps Fernando lost his self-belief? Or perhaps it was simply the fact that the man on one side of the net was called Rafael Nadal, i.e. the man who never gives up?
After that, Rafa won five games on the trot to take the lead: 5-4. I admit that at this point I thought that Fernando would call it a day and that the final score line would read 6-4.
But Fernando Verdasco fought to the bitter end. Although his body language said that he had given up (he was shaking his head, shrugging his shoulders and looking to the skies above as if begging for mercy) he still managed to save two match points in the next game to take the score to five games in all.
It still looked as though the match could go either way when Rafa served to go up 6-5 in the second set. It took Rafa a total of five deuces to finally win his service game. It was only after that long game that Fernando finally ran out of steam and succumbed to the inevitable. Rafa saved them both a tie-breaker by taking the second set 7-5.
So unfortunately, that head-to-head count can now be updated to 9-0 to Rafa. However, I honestly believe that Fernando deserved at least one set for the fight he put up.
Even though he lost, Fernando brought a small glimmer of hope to those of us searching for a player to overcome the king of clay. Maybe Fernando is the man to do it? Maybe not…but I will still cherish this blossoming Spanish rivalry while it lasts!