In a match up that pits relative youth against relative experience, Diego Schwartzman will meet Fernando Verdasco with the Rio Open title on the line. For Schwartzman, who will enter the top 20 for the first time on Monday, it is a chance to cap what has been an excellent sixth months with the biggest win of his career. Verdasco, meanwhile, will be looking to show that the magic that took him to the Australian Open semifinals and the top ten is still in his racquet. But who will come out on top?
Schwartzman and Verdasco have met just once so far in their careers. That match came in 2016 on the clay courts at the now-defunct Nice Open. Schwartzman, a qualifier, defeated Verdasco in straight sets in the first round, coming through a tight first set 7-5 before quickly wrapping up the match in the second 6-1. However, Verdasco does arguably have the edge in experience, with seven career titles to Schwartzman’s one. He also has 494 career match wins to Schwartzman’s 79.
Path to the final
Schwartzman, the sixth seed in Rio, began his campaign against Casper Ruud. Ruud made the semifinals in Rio last year (lost to Carreno Busta) but injury forced him to retire after only five games of his match against Schwartzman. The Argentine then made short work of his countryman Federico Delbonis in the round of 16. Delbonis won just five games in a 2-6 3-6 rout. That set up a quarterfinal match up with Gael Monfils for Schwartzman.
The mercurial Frenchman can be unplayable at times. But Monfils is still trying to work his way back to full form and fitness after an injury hit 2017 and Schwartzman took full advantage. He won fairly comfortably as Monfils struggled to cope with his relentless baseline pressure. Nicolas Jarry, the 22-year-old from Chile, awaited in the semis. Jarry’s run to the last four was a surprise but he played some fine tennis en route and early on matched Schwartzman blow for blow. But a late break in the first set seemed to kill Jarry’s belief and Schwartzman was in control thereafter, winning 7-5 6-2.
Verdasco’s first match at the Rio Open came against Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer. Verdasco had enough to come through a testing encounter, winning 6-2 3-6 6-3 to set up a match with Nicholas Kicker. Kicker played well to take the first set in a tiebreak but Verdasco’s shots began to land thereafter and he lost just two more games as he raced away with victory. Verdasco then brushed aside defending champion Dominic Thiem 6-4 6-0 before impressing against Fabio Fognini who he defeated 6-1 7-5.
How do they match up?
Schwartzman is one of the smallest players in the top 100, standing just 5’8 tall. However, he makes up for his comparatively small size with excellent ball striking, particularly off the forehand. His groundstrokes are consistently penetrating, and Schwartzman excels at keeping the ball deep to deny opponents the chance to step inside the court and dictate. That is something he will need to focus on against Verdasco, who does not want for power.
The Spaniard’s forehand is one of the most dangerous in the game when it is on song. It has earned frequent comparisons with his countryman Rafael Nadal’s and not without reason. However, Verdasco generally puts less work on the ball than the great Nadal but hits it harder. Indeed, his game is arguably ill-suited to clay, particularly for a Spaniard, and it is telling that the French Open is the only Slam at which he has failed to make it past the fourth round.
However, his combination of big serving and powerful groundstrokes can be a winning one on any surface. This match will likely be decided by whether Verdasco has the patience and the tactical awareness to breakdown Schwartzman’s defence. The Argentine moves too well for Verdasco to simply hit through him and so the 34-year-old will have to be adaptable in his use of angle and forays to the net would not go amiss.
Verdasco in full flight is a joy to watch in a way that few other players can rival. But the Spaniard is also no longer the player that pushed Nadal to the brink in a pulsating five-set clash in the Australian semifinals nine years ago. The magic hasn’t completely abandoned him, but he seems able and willing to call on it less and less. And he would need to be at his very best to get by Schwartzman on a clay court. Verdasco played brilliantly against Thiem and Fognini, but Schwartzman will be a step too far for him. The Argentine to win in three.
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