Houston: Verdasco d. Almagro

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Like too many in professional sports, Fernando Verdasco is known more for his losses than his wins. If the image of the Spaniard’s Calvin Klein underwear ad isn’t burned into your brain, you’re likely to recall his five-set loss to Rafael Nadal at the 2009 Australian Open as his defining moment. In that classic contest we saw the best of Verdasco, who can both obliterate and massage the ball, and his talent has taken him to 19 singles finals. But coming into today’s title bout, he’d won just five.

And had Verdasco not saved five set points at 4-5 in the second set, I suspect the 30-year-old would have his 14th career runner-up finish. Instead, Verdasco won a game he should have lost and went on to take a title he deserved to win. After surviving a three-set test against Steve Johnson, Verdasco won the last six sets he played in Houston, the last two over Nicolas Almagro, 6-3, 7-6 (4), to win his first tournament since 2010.

Verdasco’s five tightrope walks weren’t the only balancing acts he navigated this afternoon. After a confident first set, the No. 4 seed found himself down 4-1 and 0-30, serving. But from this point on, Verdasco exposed an opponent who plays to polar extremes, neither of which helped his cause today.

First, Almagro had a tendency to play far too conservatively and let Verdasco take command of points. Whether it was his returns—too short—or his positioning—too deep—Almagro’s arsenal went to waste when he settled into a mentality that showed off his scampering more than his transition game. Verdasco pounced on Almagro’s short shots; two of the set points were saved with winners off meek service returns.

But Almagro can just as easily play lead-foot tennis, unloading on every shot in sight without regard for the consequences. Of his five set chances, two were missed returns, and he offered up some head-scratching moments in the second-set tiebreaker. While he struck a searing forehand winner on the run that caught the line—practically from the boundary wall behind the baseline—there were more errors that could be chalked up to impatience. For someone who has a winning record in finals—now 12 for 21—Almagro played erratic and sometimes nervous tennis, and was unable to match Verdasco’s consistency.

By the end, Verdasco added some RPMs to his reliable shots, forcing an array of arresting gets from Almagro, many of which went for naught. But the eventual champion, who has a tendency to lose the plot on second serves, was not without nerves of his own. You could tell at 5-4 in the tiebreaker; finally, Verdasco was in a position to win. A double-fault would have drained some well-earned momentum, having won the previous two points.

He won the next two—after willing that second serve in—thanks to an Almagro slice-backhand error and a satisfying smash to end one the match’s best points, along with the match itself.

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