Fast Feet on Clay at French Open: Veteran Fernando Verdasco Shows How It’s Done

during the **** against **** on day three of the 2017 French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2017 in Paris, France.
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PARIS—It’s the weekend at the French Open, sold out despite what Parisians call a heat wave (balmy for most Americans).

The long queues on the outside first-come-first-served courts fray nerves, even as they demonstrate the popularity of the two-week event. Would that more Americans were getting into the second week; some of our women stars are likely to make it, notably Venus Williams, but on the men’s side all the burden is on Steve Johnson and John Isner.

Meanwhile, the French and Spanish aces, clay men from earliest childhood, show the red dirt need not make for tiresome contests of baseline attrition. It’s just the opposite since they all know they can hit with the consistency of Steph Curry making threes. The first and last matches of yesterday’s schedule added up to nearly eight hours of thrilling play, but they were also textbooks cases on the varieties of the game.

David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez, Spanish veterans whose great careers have been overshadowed by the success of Rafa Nadal, served, returned, retrieved impossible shots, and ran their way through five sets on Court Three; they should have been on the next door Court One, appropriately called the bullring.

Their contemporary and compatriot Fernando Verdasco closed the day on Court Two with another five-set test of willpower and stamina against France’s Paul-Hughes Herbert, which got so intense people tried to squeeze in when the bleachers were packed, causing some untypical issues of crowd management that nearly got out of hand, a rare occurrence at Roland-Garros. Lopez and Verdasco made it to the next round, both acknowledging their pals could be there but for a few breaks.

Verdasco, 33, is old-school, stands well behind the baseline and aims his shots at the corners. Hit straight, his powerful, usually low-bouncing groundstrokes do not threaten an opponent used to this surface, who gets into position with nimble feet and whams them back. But by creating cross-court opportunities and hitting to the edges, he can score winner or, if that is not enough, follow up with a shot to either the opposite side or with a down-the-line bullet that wrong-foots the other fellow hurrying back toward the center.

Herbert, nearly a decade younger, can handle the baseline bombs and answers in kind, but prefers to cut the point short with drop-shots or angles that break Verdasco’s pace. He then gets a clear chance to put a soft ball away and out of reach. Game after game, they drew on every trick they knew, until they set up the break-of-service chance to get ahead in the set.

In the sixth game of the fifth set, after nearly three-and-a-half hours, Verdasco went back to the fundamentals and returned two big Herbert serves straight to his feet on the baseline. Herbert both times hit the ball just a split second too late to keep it in play. At 4-2, that was all Verdasco needed. He held at love despite Herbert’s ferocious service returns, let him take the next game, and served the match out against an opponent who finally looked as exhausted as he surely was.

As exhausted as the brave ushers were, too. They were nearly overwhelmed by the uncooperative fans who kept spilling into the out-of-bounds walkway between Courts Two and Three. Admonitions about safety rules, whose rationale is obvious when you see people hanging over the low wall, were ignored. Finally one of the kids – the ushers are kids, polite under pressure – called a black-suited security man.

He got the area cleared without disturbing the players’ concentration, though this was happening just a few feet above the court. He stayed cool while shoved and insulted. He was The Man in Black.

It was a class act. It prevented a disruption of a match that was the sport at its best. And Verdasco, who upset the high-seed young German star Alexander Zverev in the first round, finds himself with a chance, if he wins another match, to play in the quarters at Roland-Garros, which, though it is hard to believe after such a quality performance, would be a first for him.

He surely deserves it.

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