On Sunday, Kei Nishikori battled past Fernando Verdasco 7-6(2) 6-7(5) 6-1 in 2 hours and 44 minutes. It was a match full of twists and turns, scintillating backhands and crunching lefty forehands. It was a great match-up for looking at the character of these men. Nishikori is a permanent fixture in the top ten. Verdasco has crafted huge upsets in his time, and is most famous for his monstrous match against Nadal in the semis of AUS 2009. But for all talent, neither have a GS title, or even a Masters for that matter! Their match today serves as a great example of what they lack.
To begin the match, Nishikori was in frightful form. The ball was pinging off his strings. When Nishikori is confident the ball makes a clean, sharp sound as it trampolines off his racket. This natural timing combined with his anticipation allows him to take all time away from the opponent. He is a scary figure from the back of the court. But at 4-2, 40-0 up he suddenly melted down. He made four unforced errors, squinting with vague distress at the sky overhead. This is where Kei’s weakness lies. He has no room for error. Opponents always have room to enter on his service games. This means his groundstrokes have to be on song throughout. When nerves, distractions hit you need bail out shots. Kei’s serve nearly always worsens pressure, unlike the Big Four. Perhaps even more crucially, this means Nishikori doesn’t have the tools to remove rhythm from his opponents, unlike Kyrgios, Federer, Raonic. The very best have time to adjust and recalibrate against the Japanese.
Verdasco took Nishikori’s gift and quickly brought the score to 5-4 , up a break. But then Verdasco’s weaknesses emerged. With the set in his grasp, he clenched up. He left a lob go over his head that dropped 2 meters within the baseline. He sliced an easy backhand volley into the net. Kei was back into the match, and they went to a tiebreak, where Kei’s backhand suddenly reached heavenly levels.
The typical criticism of Verdasco is that he is a mental case. He has the power and speed to create shots like this:
At his best, he can beat nearly anyone; he just chokes. To a certain extent this is true. He plays a high risk baseline game, and at crucial points he lacks commitment. But today I noticed another fatal flaw. For someone with such an aggressive game, Verdasco has very poor volleys. In the first set he was 20% from the front of the court. He consistently missed easy ones, or popped the ball up for Kei to attack. Ultimately this means his big forehands give him checks he can’t cash.
Nevertheless, today I was impressed with Verdasco’s mental strength. He came back from a break down 3-5 to win the second set and saved match points. His defense and attitude was superb. But his lack of commitment to the net cost him the match. Playing a purely baseline game against Kei was always going to be a near thing, even with the “Tabasco forehand”. These tight margins showed in the pressure-cooker beginning to the third set. Kei was up 1-1 40-love, Verdasco came back to bring it to deuce and had break points, and couldn’t pull it out.The next game he was again down 0-40, 1-2, break points against him, and pulled it back to level terms, only for Kei to break. The match was over. Verdasco sighed and groaned, the crowd quieted, Kei took over. He finished with two crips linear forehand winners into the right corner.
Deep in the third hour of a mid-day match, the last thing you want to do is get in a baseline battle with Nishikori. He is too level off both wings, too comfortable rallying. Commitment to moving forward is crucial. You must attack his serve, vary your spins, and avoid giving him rhythm. Unfortunately Verdasco couldn’t do this, and paid the price.