Verdasco fans revel in defeat of Nalbandian

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The Independent Online

The 2002 finalist and fourth seed David Nalbandian became the highest-profile casualty so far in the men's singles yesterday, losing in straight sets, 7-6, 7-6, 6-2, to the 22-year-old Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, seeded 28. It was a defeat the pony-tailed Argentine did not take too graciously, smashing his racket into the No 13 Court turf more than once, and receiving a warning from the umpire. In mitigation, his country were playing Germany in the quarter-final of the World Cup at 4pm, and he had duly asked for, and been given, a noon start. So he was doubtless aware, having lost the first two sets 11-9 in the tie-break, that if he was going to claw his way back into the match, he might miss at least some of football. No wonder he was cross.

However, the fact that Nalbandian was out of sorts, and still feeling the effects of the abdominal strain that forced him to retire after taking a set off Roger Federer in the semi-final of the French Open, should not detract from the excellence of Verdasco's win. The left-hander played quite beautifully at times, and hit 24 winners from the baseline, compared with 11 by his opponent. He also mixed up his serves to devastating effect, hitting the T and then the corners. Nalbandian had his chances, though. He'd failed to convert no fewer than 14 break points, including four in the first game of the match, by the time he finally broke Verdasco's serve at 2-3 in the second set.

Until then, Verdasco had played as indomitably as he did at Queen's a few weeks ago, when despite a groin injury that rendered him hardly able to walk by the end, he lost narrowly to his compatriot Rafael Nadal, 2-6, 7-6, 7-6. He is a fine competitor, ranked 30th in the world and rising, but he has now reached the last 16 of a Grand Slam for only the second time, following a decent run at last year's US Open, where he accounted for the 12th seed, a certain Tim Henman, in the first round.

His progress here was watched carefully, in the seats reserved for press and competitors' guests, by his girlfriend, Pristilla, and his seven-year-old sister, Ana. At the beginning of the match, Pristilla snapped open a big, red, lacy fan as only a genuine señorita can, and started fanning herself gently. By the time victory had turned from possibility to probability, the fan was going like the clappers. Alongside her, I enjoyed what might be called a collateral fanning myself.

As for Nalbandian, the only really concerted effort the 24-year-old made seemed to be to break his racket, which he eventually succeeded in doing.

Apparently, the name Nalbandian means "son of a blacksmith" in his grandfather's native Armenian, and if he could have stuck his racket on an anvil and taken a hammer to it, he looked as if he would have done. One can only guess at his emotions as he later sat down to watch the footie. With Nadal he is one of only two men to beat Federer in the past 12 months - at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai - and must have fancied his chances of getting a long way into next week.

His press conference, unsurprisingly in the circumstances, was short and not so sweet. Nalbandian is not known for his loquaciousness even with Spanish-speaking journalists, and when faced with questions in English he makes a Trappist monk sound like Jonathan Ross.

Here's a brief transcript. Question: "You had a racket warning, you appeared to lose your temper a bit in the first set. What was going through your mind?"

Nalbandian: "Nothing."

Question: "Is it right, that you had the match moved so you could watch the football this afternoon?"

Nalbandian: "Yeah. And?"

Question: "No, I just wondered if that hampered your preparations at all?"

Nalbandian: "Oh, no."

Question: "Are you a big football fan?"

Nalbandian: "Yeah, normal."

Question: "You watch a lot of football?"

Nalbandian: "Normal."

And so it went on, or rather, didn't. Then Nalbandian stalked out to watch Argentina's quarter-final, and perhaps to reflect on his failure to reach the same stage here. It is the first time in four Wimbledon appearances he has failed to make the last 16. Last year he got to the last eight, having ended the thrilling run of Andy Murray, in five sets, in the third round.

Verdasco declared his win not quite the biggest of his career, for he defeated Andy Roddick in Miami last year. Whether there is a bigger one in store here or not, he will be watched all the way by Pristilla, his biggest fan. And her big fan.

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