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Verdasco And The Reyes Effect

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Verdasco© AFP/Getty ImagesFernando Verdasco shares a joke with fellow Top 10 star Tomas Berdych.

Two years ago, Fernando Verdasco wondered if he could get better, and how he could do it. The answer lay in Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi’s renowned former mentor and physical trainer.

In their time together, working to Gil Reyes’ philosophy of “Inspiration, Information, Application”, Verdasco has made strides at the Grand Slams and become an established Top 10 player. On the eve of the 2011 Australian Open, is he now ready to become a Grand Slam champion?

Rewind 25 months. Verdasco  is 25 years old, a very respectable World No. 16 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, one of 15 Spaniards in the Top 100. He has already won two ATP World Tour titles — in Valencia (2004) and Umag (2008) -- and is a consistent performer at the majors. But there was more to come for Verdasco.

Everything changed with the 2008 Davis Cup final. Missing their injured talisman, Rafael Nadal, it fell to Verdasco and David Ferrer to lead the Spanish team against Argentina away in Mar del Plata. Verdasco rose to the occasion, defeating Jose Acasuso over five sets in the fourth rubber to claim victory for Spain. It was, he recalls, a major turning point in his career.

A career-changing moment: Verdasco celebrates his Davis Cup heroics in 2008.“That was the one thing that really changed in my mind; my confidence and my mentality to not just be a Top 20 player, but to be a Top 10 player,” says Verdasco. “I learnt more about confidence and believing more in myself.”

Lopez, sat courtside for his friend’s dramatic victory, believes that it was the catalyst for a significant change in Verdasco’s mindset. “You never know what was the key or what was the match that made you feel different, but I think it was a very important moment for his career.” However, Lopez adds that it takes more than one match to change the course of a player’s career and Verdasco, armed with the realisation that there was so much more he could achieve, knew just who to turn to.

Enter Gil Reyes, the man who Agassi described as “my trainer, my friend, my surrogate father”. At the start of his partnership with Agassi in 1989, the former basketball coach, with a 56-inch chest and crushing handshake, said, “Andre, I won't ever try and change you, because I've never tried to change anybody. But I know I can give you structure and a blueprint to achieve what you want.”

"When he comes here it's about education, he's not just coming here to work out."

The man with the Mexican roots had the determination to teach himself English though reading newspapers and watching baseball games. Most significantly, Reyes personifies the “Inspiration” in his philosophy and drove Agassi to five Grand Slam titles and a further three major finals during the Las Vegan’s second career - after the age of 29.

Through the Adidas Player Development Programme, Verdasco was invited to work with Reyes. Unsurprisingly, he jumped at the chance. “Agassi was my idol when I was young and I decided that it was, for sure, a good experience, that I would learn so much,” he says.

“Fernando was interested and I always credit him and respect him so much for that,” remembers Reyes. “He came here during Christmas time, right before the (2009) Australian Open, really not sure what was in store for him, really not sure what to expect.”

Cue parts one and two of the Reyes motto, inspiration and information. “When he comes here it’s about education, he’s not just coming here to work out. This is where you learn to get to the next level and to become the champion that is within you,” explains Reyes.

While there was some work to be done on Verdasco’s fitness, Reyes believed the basics were already there to build on, describing the Spaniard as a “born athlete” with “tremendous genetics”. In greater need of nurturing was Verdasco’s mentality. Through his time with Agassi, Reyes learned what makes champions’ tick, and he strived to pass that information on to Verdasco.

“There were doubts in his mind, a certain amount of anxiety,” admits Reyes. “But I tried to convey to him that if someone like Andre could be so unsure and so uncertain about himself as an athlete out there - and he’s such a great champion and has become a legend in his sport – then Fernando should look differently at himself on court, to be confident and to trust his legs. We made the gym a classroom for him to understand not just the sport, but also himself.”

That Verdasco responded so effectively is not just a measure of the teacher and motivator that Reyes is, but the  player’s eagerness to learn. Described by his friends, Ferrer and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, as “a normal guy, who likes to spend time with his family and friends”, Reyes also confirmed Verdasco to be one of the hardest workers in tennis. “He has the temperament of a thoroughbred,” says Reyes. “Once he understands it, he’s ready to work. He doesn’t shy away from the hard work; he has no problem with commitment. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen.”

"He's a more consistent, solid player. He's very strong physically."

‘The Reyes Effect’ was instantaneous. The following month, Verdasco reached the Brisbane International final before taking out World No. 4 Andy Murray and No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on a scintillating run to his first major semi-final at the Australian Open. It took World No. 1 Nadal, on top of his game, to end Verdasco’s run in a pulsating five-set clash. Afterwards Nadal declared, “Fernando was playing I think his best level in his career. [If] he continues like this, he's going to have chances to be any number in the rankings.”

By the end of the year Verdasco was inside the Top 8 and rewarded with a place at the prestigious Barclays ATP World Tour Finals where, despite not winning a match, he gave a good account of himself in three-set defeats to Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro and Murray.

In 2010 he was, by his own admission, more up and down. “I had some of the best results of my career, but also maybe some of the worst,,” says Verdasco. However, his improved consistency was enough to propel him towards a US Open quarter-final (l. to Nadal) and another Top 10 finish, only narrowly missing out on a spot at The O2 in London at the end of the year.

Once again, his peers were impressed by the progress he continued to make.

“He played a lot of matches during the year and I would say in a better level,” says Lopez. “He’s a more consistent, solid player; he can play better for so many more weeks than he did before. He’s very strong physically.”

Garcia-Lopez adds, “He’s improving day by day. Of course he is better than last year, because he has more experience.”

But the work that Verdasco and Reyes have done was not geared towards just reaching the semi-finals and quarter-finals of Grand Slams. Make no mistake; Verdasco is in it to win it. With the Australian Open beginning on Monday, it’s time to put into action stage three of the Reyes motto: the application of the learning.

Gil Reyes doesn’t just think Verdasco can win a Grand Slam; he believes he can win many. “He certainly has to do the hard part, but I think Fernando has more than one Grand Slam in him. Fernando has changed so much and I think now he has changed just enough to know what it’s going to take to get to the next level. I have no doubt in my mind that there’s a place for him in the upper tier of the sport."

"I think I can improve everything, and to win a Grand Slam title you must be really good at everything."

“Mentality” is the key to Grand Slam glory, suggests Ferrer, and Verdasco, it would seem, has no difficulty in embracing the expectations that surround him now at a major tournament. “I’ve been in the Top 10 for nearly two years and I don’t really feel it (the pressure and expectation),” says the Madrid native. “Of course you have more pressure and people expect more from you, they always think that you must win and that’s pressure. But I think I’ve handled it quite well in these two years.”

That inner-confidence and sense of belonging at the top of the game will certainly be of benefit to Verdasco if he is to reach the Australian Open final in two weeks’ time. Of the 10 players to have reached their first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in the past 20 years, only one has gone on to triumph (Thomas Johansson over Marat Safin in 2002).

Verdasco believes that is at Melbourne Park, where he played what he hailed as “the best tennis of my career” in 2009, that he has the best chance to win a major title, a sentiment that Lopez echoed. “The Australian Open is the Grand Slam he likes most because he reached the semis once, so I will say maybe the Australian Open [is his best chance]”.

Verdasco in action at Brisbane.One obstacle that Verdasco would almost certainly have to overcome if he were to win the Australian Open would be either Nadal or Federer, possibly both. The statistics are not encouraging. Verdasco trails Federer 0-4 in their FedEx ATP Head 2 Head, and has been on the losing side in all 11 of his meetings with Nadal.

It was with that in mind that Verdasco packed his bags and set out for Las Vegas once again in December, planning to work with Reyes to improve his speed, movement, power, preparation and decision making.

“I think I can improve everything and to win a Grand Slam title you must be really good at everything,” acknowledges Verdasco. “Look at players like Nadal and Federer. They win almost all the Grand Slams. So you just need to be at an unbelievable level to beat these guys at a Grand Slam. I will try my best to improve a lot this pre-season and try to be ready for the Australian Open, to be one of the players with chances to win.”

It is Reyes’ firm belief, though, that Verdasco already has the tools. It is simply a case of applying them and uncovering the champion within. “His answers are within him,” says Reyes. “Fernando has developed a swagger and that is the biggest difference. I think Fernando is just on the top of the best part. I think he’s starting to understand himself. I truly believe we are going to see the result, the differences on court.”

Agassi, in his autobiography, Open, wrote that "sometimes a workout with Gil is actually a conversation. We don't touch a single weight." The odds of winning a major may be stacked against Verdasco -- only three players since 1990 have won their first Grand Slam championship aged 27 or over -- but with a man like Reyes in his corner, you get the feeling nothing is out of reach. 

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