Spain's loyal lieutenants eye any sign of Nadal lapse

By Miles Evans

PARIS (Reuters) - In any other era, David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco would be leading a dashing Spanish assault on the tennis majors but unfortunately for them players such as Rafa Nadal come only once in a generation.

The two affable Spaniards, though, as they are still live contenders to go deep into the second week of the French Open, which starts on Sunday.

Ferrer, a feisty right-hander who was ranked fourth two years ago before his game plateaued, has enjoyed a renaissance during the European spring.

Showing glimpses of the blinding court and hand speed that helped him to the 2007 U.S. Open semis, he reached the last four or better at the Masters events in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid in recent weeks where only four-times French Open champion Nadal and world number one Roger Federer have proved equal to the task of beating him on clay.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic and Andy Murray (twice) have all failed to win a set against the 28-year-old, and he is in the form to show just how two quarter-final appearances in Paris are scant return on his undoubted talents.

"I've had fantastic consistency over the past four weeks," Ferrer said in Madrid. "I've never had four weeks in a row with such good consistent results.

"It's also true that several top 10 players are out with injuries and I've been able to take advantage a bit. When they come back it's going to get much more difficult.

"On top of that, we still have to play all the grass court tennis and hard surfaces; and clay is my best surface."

Verdasco has been knocking on the door since making his major breakthrough at the Australian Open last year, when he came within a whisker of unseating Nadal in an epic semi-final.

The 26-year-old from Madrid has the kind of whippy left-handed forehand which can always leave opponents feeling exposed, and though clay may not be his best surface he is keenly aware how Nadal has influenced his own destiny.

"For me it's not a pressure to have someone like Nadal (around)," he said in Madrid, where an ankle injury put his full fitness for Paris tilt in doubt.

"I think that all Spanish players need to feel so proud to be Spanish and have such an unbelievable team, so many good players. That's why we have won the Davis Cup for the last two years.

"It's so nice to have players around you of your same nationality like Nadal, Ferrer, (Juan Carlos) Ferrero, (Feliciano) Lopez, (Nicolas) Almagro, (Tommy) Robredo."

Loyal Davis Cup lieutenants and Nadal admirers they may be, but if the Mallorcan machine shows any sign of stalling then they will be the first to burst out of his shadow and grab their chance on the red Parisian dust.

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)