Verdasco crumbles as Federer reaches Indian Wells semifinals

BNP Paribas Open
By Matthew Zemek, March 21st, 2009

Following his epic five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in this year’s Australian Open 2009 semifinals, Fernando Verdasco transformed his tennis reputation from pretty-boy shotmaker to elite-level contender. Given this rise to prominence, fans and pundits wanted to see the Spaniard take on the big boys in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif.

When Roger Federer battled past Fernando Gonzalez for a three-set win in the round of 16, tennis lovers got their wish.

Lots of fascinating questions filled the buzz before this consequential quarterfinal, but the most important query had to focus on the mental dimension of this confrontation: Just how would the 10th-seeded Verdasco handle his status as the sport’s most ascendant player, up against the second seed from Switzerland?

In 92 minutes of match time, tennis fans found their answer, a clear and resounding “no.”

The great challenge of professional tennis is to be able to whack that little yellow ball between the lines with mind-numbing consistency, week after week and year after year. Lofty rankings, tournament titles, and big cash prizes come to the players who can back up results in multiple settings and on different surfaces. The task in front of Verdasco was to show that his deep run in Melbourne wasn’t a fluke. One match at a non-slam event will never define a full season, but Verdasco at least needed to show Federer that his mental toughness still existed at the high level seen in Australia.

Unfortunately for the Spaniard, old demons crept into the picture at the worst possible moments, enabling Federer to pull out a 6-3, 7-6 (5) win and move to Saturday’s semifinals against fourth-seeded Andy Murray.

The story of this fairly mediocre quarterfinal-which featured shaky, medium-pace hitting and cautious serving-came when Verdasco, once behind 4-1 in the second set, bounced back to break Federer twice and take a 6-5 lead. The new and improved Verdasco would have taken care of business and forced a third set.

The old Verdasco? Well, let’s just say it reappeared precisely when a faltering Federer, betrayed by a leaky backhand, was on the ropes and staring at a long evening under the lights.

At 30-all and just two points from the set, Verdasco double faulted in a scene reminiscent of the end of the Nadal semifinal in Melbourne. Verdasco battled back to earn a set point in the game, but instead of going for his shots the way he did in Australia, Verdasco surprisingly pulled his punches. The lefty spun in slow first serves (under 90 miles per hour), giving Federer the chance to work his way into rallies and win them. The Swiss star saved that set point and then broke Verdasco just moments later when the Spaniard’s backhand floated beyond the baseline.

Suddenly given new life by his tormented opponent, Federer unsurprisingly played a confident tiebreaker and popped his first serve with extra authority. Racing out to a 6-2 lead before banging some nervous groundstrokes into the middle of the net, Federer-on his fourth match point-found another hard first serve down the middle, and Verdasco’s backhand stab return landed just long.

As Roger Federer moves to the semifinals, Fernando Verdasco is left to wonder what might have been. A talented 25-year-old made a name for himself in Australia; however, if his nerves overwhelm his serves in future matches, this loss in Indian Wells will linger for some time to come.


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