Two of tennis’ most talented and unpredictable players face off in the Rio Open semifinals as Fabio Fognini takes on Fernando Verdasco. Seeded fifth and eighth respectively, both players will be looking to take advantage of a draw that has opened up and reach a final that would rank amongst the biggest matches of their careers. But will it be Italian or Spaniard that comes out on top?
Fognini and Verdasco, both of whom are now arguably veterans of the Tour, have met five times over the course of their careers in a head-to-head that Verdasco leads three matches to two. Their first match came almost a decade ago in Croatia on the clay courts of Umag in the semifinals. Verdasco was the victor in that match, brushing aside Fognini 6-3 6-1 and went on to win the title. He doubled his advantage with a three-set win in Acapulco two years later, recovering from a set down to win 2-6 6-4 6-0.
Fognini, somewhat surprisingly given his affinity for clay, came out on top in the third match on the lawns of the All-England Club. The Italian won a four-set battle, coming through 7-6 6-2 6-7 6-4 to upset the eight seeded Verdasco and went on to reach the third round. They met again at the next Slam in New York in the first round, and Verdasco had his revenge winning in five sets 1-6 7-5 6-1 4-6 6-3. A seven-year break in their rivalry then ensued, but it was renewed at the Shanghai Masters last year with Fognini winning in three sets in the first round.
Path to the semifinals
Fognini began his campaign for the Rio Open against local hope Thomaz Bellucci. Bellucci was once ranked as high as 21st in the world, but he failed to fulfil his potential and recently served a suspension for doping. None-the-less, he gave a good account of himself against Fognini, winning the first set in a tiebreak, but ultimately the Italian’s quality told as he won through 6-7 7-5 6-2. Fognini then defeated surprise Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren, again having to recover from dropping the first set to win a tight encounter.
That sent him into the quarterfinals where Aljaz Bedene awaited. Bedene, who recently returned to playing for the nation of his birth Slovenia after a period representing Britain, was in good form coming into the match. The week previous he had made the final at the Argentina Open and looked to be in good stead when he won the first set on a tiebreak. But Fognini turned it on thereafter, and Bedene couldn’t live with the Italian as he won just four more games.
Fernando Verdasco has also had to battle hard to make the last four. Beginning against Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer, himself a formidable clay courter on his day, it was never likely to be easy for Verdasco. He defeated Mayer in three, winning 6-2 3-6 6-3 before defeating another Argentinian, Nicholas Kicker, in the second round. He again needed three sets, losing the first before stepping up his level to come through comfortably 6-7 6-2 6-0. He then played his best match of the tournament to defeat top seeded Dominic Thiem 6-4 6-0.
How do they match up?
Fognini is the more proficient clay courter of the two. His defensive skills are hugely impressive, despite him often seeming flat footed. He is also capable of hitting his groundstrokes with heavy topspin and has the quality to change direction with both when he wishes to do so. His serve is not a particularly effective shot especially by the high standards of the ATP Tour. But, on the slower clay it is not a serious weakness in his game.
Verdasco, despite being Spanish, has always been more at home on hard and grass courts than on clay. That is often the way for those hailing from Madrid where the high altitude encourages more aggressive play than on the slow clay courts across the rest of Spain. But his forehand is a sufficiently powerful weapon that it can win him matches on any surface. He is also able to hit it with a level of topspin that few not named Rafael Nadal can better.
The mental battle will be an interesting one in this match. Neither man is known for their mental toughness and grit, and if one makes a bad start it will be interesting to see if they are able to claw their way back into the match. The mental side of the game may be a particular problem for Fognini. If Verdasco comes out at his best the Italian will have to be patient and work his way into the match, but he could easily become frustrated and withdraw from the challenge mentally.
This is an incredibly difficult match to call. The pair have a close head-to-head and it is also hard to determine what sort of match they will play. At their best they are almost unplayable, at their worst they beat themselves. But Verdasco looks to have been in slightly better form so far this week and was hugely impressive against Dominic Thiem. That just tips the match in his favour. Expect him to come through in three sets.
Who do you think will win the match? Let us know in the comments below!