The name rhymes with a certain ingredient one uses to provide a substantial kick to your sausage and eggs or various other foods you might like to eat.
Predictably (and this is not a bad thing), Fernando Verdasco acquired the nickname “Hot Sauce” in the earlier stages of his career. The nickname stuck and made sense in part because his game can be “mucho caliente” at times.
Verdasco plays highly watchable tennis. He goes for shots, and he demonstrated in his best-ever match — the 2009 Australian Open semifinals against Rafael Nadal — that he was willing to make mistakes in exchange for hitting winners. He realized earlier than most Nadal opponents that risk-taking is a central part of playing elite opponents. He isn’t dumb. He can lash winners from any spot on the court.
Yet, what detail in the above paragraph is revealing about Verdasco? His best-ever match was still a loss, a loss affected by double faults in huge moments. That match should have been a catapult for Verdasco. He should have been for Spanish tennis what David Ferrer became. Ferrer deserved his place, to be sure, but Verdasco should have forged a similarly productive career with the talent he had.
True, Verdasco has won over 500 tennis matches. That’s not an empty career, but Fernando’s glass is also far from full.
We were reminded of this in his latest spectacular loss against Marin Cilic at the Australian Open.
I don’t even need to offer an extended description.
I can simply pass along this tweet:
Fernando Verdasco's #10YearChallenge
Double faulted match point down vs Nadal 2009 Australian Open
Doubled faulted match point up vs Cilic 2019 Australian Open
— Andrew Hendrie (@AndyHendy89) January 18, 2019
The consistency with which tennis fans and commentators expect Verdasco to have his “slip on a banana peel” or “step on a rake” moment at a crucial juncture in a big match is impossible to ignore. That Verdasco keeps turning into this exasperated cartoon character — hit again and again in the face by that rake, or falling off the cliff like Wile E. Coyote against the Roadrunner — underscores his inability to evolve in relationship to the mental challenge of tennis.
Once every few years at a major, Verdasco reminds us how dangerous he can be… and then self-sabotages his effort to make a run. He let Andy Murray get away in the 2013 Wimbledon quarterfinals after being up two sets. Given that Jerzy Janowicz was the semifinalist in that half of the draw, Verdasco lost his best chance to make a Wimbledon final that year.
Now we have this match against Cilic, who did not enter Australia with ideal preparation, having had to pull out of a warm-up tournament in the preceding weeks. Verdasco built a two-set lead, was right there with a match point… and flinched.
So many athletes with less talent find the special sauce needed to compete to the best of their abilities. “Competing” certainly includes fighting skills, and as a fighter, Fernando Verdasco can be a delightfully dogged athlete. Yet, “competing” also means handling situations with poise and composure.
That bottle of Verdasco sauce still hasn’t been found.
No one — especially Fernando himself — has yet conceived of the recipe.