SAN JOSE, CALIF. — Fernando Verdasco said that he prepped for his SAP Open title defense by spending two weeks with his feet up on the couch at his home in Madrid. But this wasn’t your ordinary couch-potato blowoff. The Spaniard had limped away from the Australian Open (where he lost to Tomas Berdych in the fourth round) with a bum ankle, an injury that led to a cortisone injection. Then he came down with a 102.2 temperature that left him with lingering headaches.
The couch was his only option.
But the time away from the court seems to have done him some good. The top seeded lefthander is headed to the SAP final for the second straight year after out-hitting towering Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro in a straight-sets semi on Saturday night at the HP Pavilion 6-4, 6-4. He will next face Canadian upstart Milos Raonic, the benefactor of a walkover after Gael Monfils pulled out of the semis with a wrist injury.
“I wasn’t making mistakes,” said the world No. 9, who won 82 percent of his first-serve points on the night. “I needed that against Juan Martin because he was playing great this week. I knew I needed to play my best tennis and play solid from the baseline if I wanted to win. I didn’t expect to play so well after these last two weeks.”
DelPo’s coach, Franco Davin, cautioned that his pupil’s comeback might take some time. After an eight-month layoff due to a nasty wrist injury, he said JMDP still lacked timing and match toughness, and that he didn’t expect him to be back in his former top-five form until at least the summer of 2011.
Could have fooled us. Despite complaining of on-and-off post-surgery discomfort, Del Potro, 22, hadn’t dropped a set coming into the semis, and looked downright dominant in a full-throttle quarterfinal win over still-speedy-after-all-these-years Aussie Lleyton Hewitt. But Verdasco was playing some pretty good ball himself. He hadn’t lost a set either, and he was a perfect 31-for-31 in service games — the first time he had gone three consecutive matches without being broken.
Del Potro got off to a slow start when he was broken in the very first game of the match. Verdasco subsequently held his serve at love and seemed to glide through the remainder of the set. Del Potro raised his game in the second stanza, handing his opponent his only break of the week to go up 3-1. But the 27-year-old Verdasco was just too steady, immediately breaking back, and Del Potro never had another break-point chance thereafter.
“I had a bad start, but it was in the beginning of the match,” said Del Potro, who out-aced his opponent 8-5. “I had all the rest of the match to try to beat him, but he played much better than me today. He served very well. He takes his opportunities. When you play a little under your level, it’s difficult to come back. Today I lost against a top 10 player and couldn’t do anything against him.”
The 20-year-old Raonic, who’ll be appearing in his first ATP Tour final, is attempting to become the first Canadian to win an ATP singles title since Greg Rusedski won Seoul in 1995. Verdasco, meanwhile, is looking for the first ATP title repeat of his career.
“His serve is one of the best, for sure, right now on the tour,” said Verdasco, who practiced with Raonic prior to the Aussie Open and says he wouldn’t be surprised if the No. 84-ranked Canadian finished the year inside the top 20. “He’s playing with confidence. He’s so tall and serves too all the spots on the court very easily. Also, on the return, he’s aggressive. He’s an aggressive player. I need to play deep and not let him play inside the court. This is where he feels most comfortable.”