MONTE CARLO, Monaco – Fernando Verdasco, who won the fourth ATP title of his career in San Jose in February, scored the biggest upset of the week Saturday at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters by beating the No 1 seed Novak Djokovic 6-2, 6-2.
No surprise as to who Verdasco will be playing in Sunday's final: Rafael Nadal did not allow a few sprinkles of rain (no volcanic dust here yet) to disrupt his march toward a sixth consecutive title as he thwarted all David Ferrer's attempts to pin him back with heavy ground strokes to beat his fellow Spaniard 6-2, 6-3.
For Verdasco this is a step up. The left-hander from Madrid, who lost such an agonizingly close match to Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2009, has never reached the final of an ATP Masters 1000 event before and, while admitting that he is "so happy" to have done so, he also has no illusions as to the task in hand, having lost to Nadal nine times out of nine.
"I will have to play the perfect match," he said. "Rafa gives you so few chances on clay."
Unusually for a Spaniard, Verdasco actually prefers hard courts but says he is comfortable on clay and proved it with the way in which he moved Djokovic around. "Tactically I played a really good match," said the man who takes himself off to Las Vegas to train with Darren Cahill and Gil Reyes of the adidas team whenever it makes geographical sense. "I was trying to be consistent; trying to hit my forehand deep and high to move him around a lot and make the rallies long."
Djokovic, who seems to be frequently beset by health problems, did not enjoy that and, even if the score was a little harsh, was really never in a position to turn the contest around.
"I wasn't moving well, I wasn't feeling well on court," said the Serb. "Actually, there's been a little bit of a problem with allergies the last month and a half but obviously I don't want to make excuses for the loss. He played very good but I think I made his win much easier because I made so many unforced errors."
Meanwhile, Nadal is poised to move past five-time winner Anthony Wilding and win his sixth title here. That would put him level with Reggie Doherty, who won the first of his six titles in 1897 and the last in 1904. Yes, we are going back in history now and, for those of you who believe the game was so different then to be of no consequence, in the modern context Nadal is on his own; no player has won the same ATP Masters Series 1000 title six times since the new tour was formed in 1990.
But Doherty and Wilding were huge stars of their era - Doherty one of two British brothers who won Wimbledon numerous times and Wilding, a dashing New Zealander, was Wimbledon champion from 1910 to 1913. When Wilding reigned supreme on the Riviera, this tournament was played on courts in front of the Casino, not that such a pleasure palace distracted him. He was neither a gambler nor a drinker.
But he was a hero. Little over a year from his last victory in Monte Carlo, Wilding, having volunteered for service, was killed in the trenches in Flanders. There are marble tablets lining the corridor behind Prince Albert's Royal Box at the Country Club depicting all the tournament winners. Only one has a notation. "Anthony Wilding," it reads. "Mort pour la Patrie."
Hopefully Nadal will never be asked to die for his country but, being the kind of young man he is, he will not be unaware that there are those of his generation who are, even from Spain.