Like a drum roll that starts slowly and rises steadily until it becomes a pounding crescendo, so is the tension gripping the Spanish Davis Cup team in Mar del Plata. For the 11,000 strong blue and white clad Argentine supporters packing the Estadio Islas Malvinas there is little doubt now as to the outcome. Still, some of the faithful clasp rosary beads and pray for a miracle. For nearly four hours the arena has seemed like a tempest in a teacup, but now, it is deathly quiet.
Twice in this final game Acasuso has denied the Spaniards victory. Now, once again, a single point away from capturing the trophy, Verdasco prepares for the return. Emilio Sanchez takes a deep breath, the anxiety showing on his face, runs his hand through his hair and locks eyes with his player.“Vamos Fernando,” Emilio orders. “Vamos.”
“The first two match points, Jose played really well,” Verdasco recalls. “I was trying to just keep the ball in play, not make a mistake. But before the third match point, I said to myself, ‘Fernando take the shot! Go for the shot!’”
And does he ever.
The return in play, Verdasco flings an awkward slice backhand to Acasuso, daring the Argentine to run around his backhand. Acasuso takes the bait, driving a heavy forehand inside-out, but in the process leaving his forecourt exposed. Deep behind his own baseline, Verdasco seizes the moment and loads all 81 kilograms of his chiseled frame onto his left leg. Torquing his upper body, his right shoulder coils around like a spring ready to explode. Suddenly and without warning he pulls the trigger releasing a forehand winner ripping down the line. The shot catches Acasuso off guard, and Verdasco collapses onto the court in triumph. It becomes the shot seen around the world.
It is a perfect ending, to what Verdasco would later call, “the greatest year of my life. A year where everything went right, both on and off the court.”
Emilio Sanchez thinks it was more than just a coincidence that Fernando played such a mighty role for the winning team.
“All week he had been talking about episodes from his favourite television programme, Heroes,” Emilio says. “On the Wednesday before the tie we were at a ranch house outside Mar del Plata. We had just eaten a parillada when we went for a walk in the fields. After a bit, the team gathered and it was asked of each man how he would like to be remembered after this weekend. When it was Fernando’s turn, he said simply, ‘I want to be a hero. I want to be the hero for Spain.’ I think it was a little more than a coincidence. Maybe it was his destiny?”
2008 turned out to be a very good year for the 25-year-old native of Madrid. Capturing the title in Umag ended a long and often frustrating drought since his maiden ATP World Tour title in Valencia four years earlier. Sweetening the pot, the victory in Croatia propelled the Spaniard to a career-high world ranking of 11.
When asked what was the cause of improvement in ‘08, Verdasco is ready with the answer, “I was extremely happy off the court. I travelled a lot with my father, and some with my coach and long-time friend, Tati Rascon. Other tournaments my uncle and cousins would join me, so I was always with family. I felt that I needed different things at different times. So, I mixed it up. And we had really good fun, and that made me more relaxed on the court which made me play better.”
Verdasco considers Feliciano Lopez his best friend. And it was Feliciano who came to his side the night before Fernando’s dramatic Davis Cup match.
“With respect to Acasuso, we felt that Fernando was the favourite,” Feliciano remembers. “All the pressure was on Fernando so I just tried to keep him calm.”
Anyone who has watched Verdasco’s play over the last few years might understand what Feliciano meant by keeping him calm. Verdasco can often be compared to a gunfighter who kicks the door down and enters with both guns blazing.
“In the past, Fernando would many times try to blast players off the court, relying on his physical and tennis skills too much,” Emilio Sanchez believes. “In the second half of ’08 he began to stay focused during the changes of momentum.”
That is something that Fernando’s father, Jose, who travels with him frequently agrees with.
“Fernando matured a lot as a player in ’08,” Jose says. “In the past he would get upset and let three, four or five points, sometimes more, slip away before regaining his composure. He has definitely improved in that area.”
It is a bright, clear and sunny spring morning in Barcelona and Fernando Verdasco is standing on the edge of the roof of the Hotel Melia. Cold and completely naked Verdasco stares into the camera, strikes a pose, reaches down and grabs his… racquet. With his subject framed by the Barcelona skyline, world famous photographer Antonio Petronzio begins shooting the Spanish star for Cosmopolitan Magazine. It is a charitable effort to raise awareness of male cancer.
“Fernando was a real professional,” Antonio says. “In order to get the perspective of the skyline we had to shoot on top of a high rise building located in the financial heart of the city. It was ironic that although I insisted on a closed set if half of Barcelona had just looked up they could have seen one of their tennis players posing in the nude.”
“His laid back personality makes him photogenic,” Antonio continues. “Fernando is such a cool character that I knew the pictures would work.”
Admired for his tennis, and sought as a model for his strong physical features, those who know him best appreciate his demeanour.
“Besides being so friendly to everyone, especially on the tour,” Feliciano Lopezsays, “Fernando is really funny. He makes us laugh a lot.”
Journalists have even compared him to Roger Federer in the sense that he is extremely polite and willing to accommodate all interviews within reason.
It is mid-December and Fernando Verdasco should be at home in Spain, but instead he is flying at 33,000 feet over the Atlantic on the way to Las Vegas. Teaming up with strength and conditioning coach, Gil Reyes, Verdasco changed his pre-season routine. Something that he hopes will help him crack the Top 10.
“We have great coaches in Spain, maybe the best,” says Verdasco. “But I have never really done well in the first part of the year, even though I always worked hard. This year I wanted to try something different so I joined Gil in Vegas. To finish in the Top 10 I am going to have to be very fit and more consistent with my performances. My results will say if this relationship is successful, but so far I am very happy with Gil and the family environment that he has in Vegas. ”
Just as Verdasco’s game is soaring to new heights, so to is his global image. Largely due in part to a four month old relationship with WTA star, Ana Ivanovic, it seems that the media just cannot get enough of them.
“It can be a little embarrassing,” Verdasco admits, alluding to all the media attention, “but if the truth be known, Ana and I have a very normal relationship – not nearly as glamourous as the media would like to report. She and her team are very professional, and I have my team, and our tennis needs come first. But we do share some other interests away from the courts. Honestly, I think people would be surprised if they knew just how normal our relationship is.”
Whether it is on the court or off it, Fernando Verdasco is a man on the move. He is in the prime of his life, loaded with plenty of game and full of confidence. And now he has learned that just like in the movies, dreams do come true. If only one dares to dream.