Spanish sherry is a sorely undervalued wine. Tainted by associations with the syrupy brown tipple of yesteryear, its variety, delicacy, subtlety, and vitality is one of the revelations of travels through Spain.
And just as these glorious wines represent the diverse and sunny personality of that country, so do their tennis players. One look at Spain’s all-conquering Davis Cup squad and you are spoilt for choice.
The dry, crisp, light fino might be Tommy Robredo. The bold, salty tang of a manzanilla could sum up Feliciano Lopez. The nutty golden amber of an amontillado is Rafael Nadal. But the most perfect analogy is between the dark, intense oloroso and Fernando Verdasco.
There are plenty of the female persuasion who would nod at the suitability of the word for the most sultry of athletes: Oloroso is Spanish for “fragrant.”
But its appropriateness is more than skin deep. It has just as much to do with how the richest of sherries is produced. The long and unique maturing process makes this mellifluous wine suit Verdasco perfectly.
The deeply flavoured, dry oloroso ages slowly, becoming darker and stronger as it matures to coppery bronze. What’s more, its natural sugars convert, through long fermentation, to the sherry family’s highest alcohol content.
So in color, strength, and development, Verdasco emulates the finest oloroso. He is a man and a tennis player who seems to have grown more slowly and matured more steadily than the rest.
The Madrid native turned professional at the age of 17, as have many of today’s best players. Yet with most of the current high flyers still only between around 21 and 23 years old, Verdasco, at 26, could be regarded as a seasoned campaigner. He does, after all, have nine years on the Tour behind him.
Compare his progress, though, with the trajectory of his younger compatriot.
Nadal turned pro in the same year as Verdasco, 2001, when he was still only 15. Before he was 16, he’d won his first ATP match. At 17, he was ranked in the top 50, was winning Challengers, and reached the third round of Wimbledon. He seemed already to be fully-formed both in mind and body.
At 18, he won his first ATP title and reached the doubles semis at the U.S. Open. At 19, he captured a teenage record of 11 titles, including his first Grand Slam. Now, still only 23, he has accumulated 36 titles from 48 finals, and was No. 1 for more than a year.
While others who turned pro at around 17 could not hope to emulate such precocious achievements, most of them have made a faster impact on the Tour than Verdasco.
The contrast between his time-line and Nadal’s is especially striking. Not until 19 did Verdasco begin to qualify for the Slams, and he did not win a title until he was 20. His next title took a further four years, when he also, at last, broke into the top 30.
However, it was in the week he turned 25, at the very end of 2008, that the Verdasco maturation approached its fulfillment.
He had made inroads into the top 20 by the time he played his vital part in winning the Davis Cup for Spain. In front of an away crowd, and with Spain’s leading man, Nadal, sidelined by injury, Verdasco seemed to grow in stature with the demands of the role.
Not only did he partner best friend Lopez to win the doubles rubber, he went on to seal the title in a singles rubber from two sets to one down. It was as though the transition to fully-fledged maturity had been completed.
The gradual evolution from the raw grape juice of the teenager to the robustness of the finished oloroso clearly needed time.
In the early years, the youthful, zesty Verdasco was as likely to make headlines for his off-court life as for his tennis. Blessed with burnished good looks, charm, and a quiet ease with the media, his relationships—including one with the WTA’s glamorous No. 1 Ana Ivanovic—filled as many column inches as his matches.
Again, the contrast with Nadal, mature beyond his years and in a discrete, long-term relationship with the girl back home, is striking.
But that highly-charged Davis Cup victory, and the confidence Verdasco seemed to draw from it, brought a fresh perspective. It spurred him on to an intense training schedule during the subsequent off season, so when he reappeared a month later in Australia, he looked a little leaner, a little stronger, the fully-formed man.
He reached the final in Brisbane before launching an unexpected attack on the Australian Open draw. He swept through three rounds in easy straight sets, with more zip in his forehand and more power in his serve.
Then he knocked out the burgeoning Andy Murray in five sets, but he wasn’t done yet. The No. 7 ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga fell in four sets, and finally came the match of the tournament against team-mate Nadal.
This was a confrontation of powerful shot-making and of enormous energy and commitment. Against a Nadal at his resilient and passionate best, Verdasco produced shots of huge weight, extreme angle, and fierce speed.
The measure of both men was in the result. After five sets, more than five hours, and three tie breakers, it was 192 points to Verdasco and 193 to Nadal.
That match launched Verdasco, as full-formed player, into his most successful year in tennis. He went on to reach the quarterfinals of the next three Masters events, falling to the world Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in each case. It was the same story in Rome and Madrid, beaten in both in the quarters by the clay-courter of the age, Nadal.
When it came to the North American Masters, it was No. 5 Roddick on his favorite surface who blocked the way. Then at the U.S. Open, it was No. 4 Novak Djokovic, again in the quarters, who thwarted Verdasco’s ambitions.
In a year of uphill battles, he nevertheless picked up a third title and reached two more finals, but he had a weather eye on his ultimate target: the World Tour Finals in London.
The closer he came to guaranteeing his place, the tighter his tennis became. Where he had been losing only to the very top men at the big events, he went out in the first round of Shanghai to No. 37 Ivan Ljubicic. But eventually, a semifinal place in Valencia was enough to take him over the WTF qualifying line, as of right, as world No. 8.
On paper, Verdasco looked outclassed in London, losing all three round robin matches. But all those matches went the full distance, and two needed tie breakers. The last match, against Andy Murray, took three hours to decide.
Verdasco showed great intensity in his play and in his losses: every point of every match seemed to mean the world to him. The distance he had come, in a fraction under 12 months, was clearly not enough.
It should be no surprise, then, that once more Verdasco spent the winter training in the States. From there, he went on to beat hot competition—including the higher ranked Djokovic and Tsonga—in winning the exhibition Kooyong Classic.
But come Melbourne, Verdasco yet again suffered a tough draw that pitted him, in the fourth round, against the player-of-the-moment, Nikolay Davydenko.
It proved, as had his face-off with Nadal in 2009, to be one of the stand-out matches of Melbourne. The four-hour five-setter saw Verdasco fight back from a two-sets-to-love-deficit, only to lose in the decider.
Then last week, he finally tasted the fruits of his labors. In winning his fourth ATP title, the Spaniard broke his 15-match losing streak against top-10 players with a victory over No. 7 Roddick in San Jose. He did it in style with his 15th ace of the match.
Just as Verdasco scored a break-through moment last week, another slow developer, Robin Soderling, was having his own in Rotterdam: a first ATP 500 title.
Soderling is another big man with a big game who turned pro in 2001. Now 25, his gradual development also took an upward trajectory in 2008. He took one title from four finals and, like Verdasco, stepped onto the Grand Slam stage, at Roland Garros.
Like good wine, both men are improving with age. But while Soderling seems still to be maturing towards his full potential, Verdasco may already be playing at his.
He has honed himself into 6’2” of solid ball-hitting muscle. He has one of the biggest forehands in the game, great stamina, a remarkable work ethic. He seems, at last, to have the confidence that he can win big matches, even when he is down. It’s been an admirable year in the career of an admirable man.
Whether Verdasco can develop the creativity and variety in his game to improve much further is the unknown quantity.
But oloroso keeps well, even after the bottle has been opened and the fragrance shared. There should be plenty more years to savor the Fernando bouquet.