Fernando Verdasco is quite familiar with Novak Djokovic‘s game. The Spaniard — ranked third only to Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer in his homeland — has now faced the Serb on nine occasions. But despite emerging victorious from their last two encounters, the Cristiano Ronaldo look-alike says that, even before the first ball was struck at the Australian Open, he had an inkling that Djokovic — who had ample momentum after leading his countrymen to their first Davis Cup title in December — would win it all.
“Before the tournament, I was telling my group — my dad, my cousin, my fitness coach — that he was going to be the favorite. So I was right and he won the tournament. I always said that [winning the] Davis Cup was like a point of inflection for me. I became a completely new player after that,” said Verdasco, who helped lead Spain to consecutive Davis Cup titles in ’08 and ’09. “I believed in myself much more. You become a better mental player. When I won the [first] Davis Cup that gave me big confidence. After that, I went to Australia and [reached] the semifinals. I maybe played the best tennis in all my life. With Novak, the same happened this year. He won that Davis Cup playing unbelievable. All those feelings, all that emotion that he lived there make him a much better player, and that helped him big-time to go to Australia and win the title.”
No longer a one-Slam wonder, Djokovic scored a convincing, straight-sets win over Andy Murray in Melbourne. That could signal a change in the ATP’s pecking order. The earlier-than-expected exits by Nadal and Roger Federer hint at an expanding field, and there are those who feel that Djokovic has the stuff to jump two spots and take over No. 1.
“I think that he has the game,” said Verdasco, No. 9 in the latest ATP rankings. He was close to No. 1 already. For sure he can be No. 1. He’s young and he has a great game. Winning Davis Cup gave him extra power — mentally, psychologically and physically — to go to Australia and win his second Grand Slam.”
The knock on Djokovic has long been a perceived fragility. His pullouts at the French Open in ’05 (breathing problems), the ’06 Umag final (more respiratory issues), Wimbledon in ’07 (toe blister), the Australian Open in ’09 (heat illness) and Belgrade last year (allergies) have hung over him like a rain cloud. Andy Roddick went so far as to say that, on any given day, Djokovic is apt to complain about everything from bird flu to anthrax, SARS and the common cold. But with back-to-back Slam wins over Federer (including a five-set 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 thriller over the Swiss in the U.S. Open semis last year), the 23-year-old is beginning to shed that reputation.
“I had my ups and downs throughout these two, three years, but right now I feel like I’m much stronger and more consistent, and I know that I’m more stable — mentally and physically,” explained Djokovic in Melbourne. “I hope that I can hold onto this for the whole year, because it’s important. If you want to stay at the top of men’s tennis, you have to play consistently well all the time.”
“He has all the strokes,” said Verdasco, who hopes to defend his title at the upcoming Feb. 7-13 SAP Open in San Jose, Calif. “But maybe his most powerful weapon is his return. He’s one of the most dangerous guys when he returns. Also, his backhand is one of the best on the ATP Tour. He’s defending, stretching, taking really difficult balls. Before it was Rafa who was returning all those balls that were impossible to get. Now Novak is doing that, too. I saw him covering the court at the Australian Open unbelievably, making the court really small, making the other players try to push more and make more mistakes. And he improved his serve compared to last year, when he was struggling a little bit with double-faults. Now he’s got the serve again. He’s playing with big confidence right now.”