What would two rich, single Spanish guys in their 20s choose to do at 11:00 A.M. on any given weekday? There are a lot of possibilities, I’m sure, but I doubt one of them would be to go out in 90 degree heat in suburban Cincinnati and begin a three-and-a-half hour tennis match. That wouldn’t be their first choice, anyway.
But that’s what Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco found themselves doing on Thursday morning, even if it looked like they might technically still be asleep. The two traded three straight breaks to start the match, all of which involved more shaky serves and ugly errors than they did well-struck winners. Things improved a little as both players forced themselves to open their eyes and move, but in the end the first set was lost rather than won. In the tiebreaker, Verdasco went up a mini-break at 5-3 before double-faulting the lead away. Worse, at 5-5 he tried an ill-advised surprise serve and volley, popped the ball right back to Nadal, lost the point, and came fairly close to popping a blood vessel in rage. When Verdasco’s next backhand sailed long, it appeared that he had melted down in the Cincy heat for good, and that he would soon be walking off a loser for the 12th straight time to Nadal.
The fun was only beginning. While the match never reached any memorable level of quality—it was kind of the reverse of their Aussie Open classic from 2009—it did have a little bit of everything. Mostly it involved Verdasco acting a little, well, cracked. He tapped his racquet menacingly, over and over, on the court. He held highly animated conversations with himself. He threatened to drop his pants after Nadal passed him. He threw his racquet down and stared at his father. He complained that half the balls were dead. He used his rage to hammer furious winners on some points, and launch balls close to the backdrop on others. And I think, when the match was finally and mercifully over, I saw him bend down and spit on the court. It was entertaining stuff, even if the tennis had itself had little to with it.
In the end Nadal survived. But this wasn’t a classic close Rafa win. His serve was off, he chipped his backhand rather than ripping it, he didn’t control many rallies with his forehand, and most important, he didn’t put Verdasco away when you thought he would. Nadal went up 5-1 in the third-set tiebreaker and, with a new conviction in his shots, he briefly looked like the Rafa of old, the guy who became more dialed in when most players let their nerves take over.
But as he has a couple of other times this year, Nadal suddenly did let his nerves get the best of him. From 5-1 up, it seemed that the two players had swapped brains: Now it was Nadal who pushed a backhand wide and sliced another into the bottom of the net; who snatched anxiously at a forehand, dropped his ground stokes short of the service line, and barely got his second serve to crawl across the net. It was Nadal who blew match points by overhitting easy forehands and pushing easy backhands. The match ended in a sea of errors, as if the two were determined to go out the way they had begun. It ended 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (9).
Nadal won. Forget how it looked; this was a case, after his five losses to Novak Djokovic this year and to Ivan Dodig last week, when a win, any kind of win, has to be looked at as a first step. It’s certainly not a win that will make Nadal believe he’s playing well, or give him any more of that elusive self-assurance he's been searching for. Still, he got a chance to celebrate something.
For Rafa, there were two silver linings to playing early today. One was that the match was against a fellow late-night-loving Spaniard. The other was that it was against Fernando Verdasco. Wins do come from having confidence, but confidence grows from wins, too, any kind of wins. Sometimes that starts with having your opponent give you one.