Fernando Verdasco and Richard Gasquet exit Basel, not with a bang but a whimper

Richard Gasquet and Fernando Verdasco both exit the Swiss Indoors tournament in Basel in the first round

There were certainly bigger names on the start list at the Swiss Indoors come Wednesday. In a packed schedule, it was hard to know where to look for the best entertainment.

Would it be in the shape of the in-form No8 seed Jack Sock? He arrived here from a runner-up finish against Juan Martin del Potro in Stockholm and, before that, a quarter-final run in Shanghai, including a win over Milos Raonic to boot.

But no, his opener against Adrian Mannarino was as straight-forward as they come, a 68-minute, 6-3, 6-3 win with few thrills and spills.

One of the most popular players in this corner of Switzerland—the borders with both Germany and France meet in Basel—is Richard Gasquet, and he too arrived with the wind, and a win, in his sails. He picked up the Antwerp title, his second of the year, and was favoured to beat the No59-ranked Guido Pella, an Argentine whose match-wins were largely outdoors and on clay.

But on the big indoor hard court of Basel, Gasquet looked a weary figure before he had even played a point. He lost the first set, 6-2, and not for the first time this year, needed physio treatment. A persistent back problem had forced him out of Doha and the Australian Open, and then retirement in the fourth round of Wimbledon.

A quick break in the second set, and the Frenchman was forced to call it a day before the clock had ticked through 40 minutes. And that left almost an hour of dead time in the main arena before No3 seed Kei Nishikori was scheduled to meet Paolo Lorenzi.

But while Gasquet faded and Centre Court waited, there was passion and action aplenty on the tournament’s second court.

Perhaps it did not promise much, this first-round meeting between two Spaniards, Fernando Verdasco and Pablo Carreno Busta. But it delivered a match played at near fever-pitch for almost an hour, before subsiding into a contest as compelling in its frustration as it had been in its fire.

Verdasco, once a top-10 player, has always had the ingredients to thrill and despair: One match, the left-hander can be brilliant, his forehand the match of any on the tour; the next match, and he can seem unable to control his huge firepower at all. He can even swing from one extreme to the other in the space of a match, in the space of a set. And this was one such match.

He had played his opponent, Pablo Carreno Busta, a few months back, and suffered a wayward loss having just, the week before, won the Bucharest title. Since then, the younger Carreno Busta’s ranking had steadily risen from around 50 to a current high of 32: He was a man on the rise, having won two titles from his first four finals this year. He last title run was just last week, in Moscow, too.

Carreno Busta had never played in Basel before, and may not have played on a court quite like this one in a while.

For if ever an arena is designed to crank up the frustration, it is this echoing chamber that amplifies the noise several times over, has three of its walls and ceiling painted darkest brown/black, and has no Hawkeye

But so intimately engaged are the high, serried ranked of spectators along one side that not a movement goes unnoticed, not a word unheard, not a gesture missed—and the gestures and words bubbled over time and again from both men. The crowd loved it, and they loved the spectacular ball-striking, too.

It was fast and furious, sometimes extending through long exchanges, sometimes curtailed by an outright rifle of a winner.

The story began to unfold early: a break point resisted by Verdasco in the first game, a break achieved in the second, 2-0. Carreno Busta quickly found his rhythm to break straight back, and then exploded mid-game when an ‘out’ call was overruled. But argument was fruitless, and to his credit, he then saved a break point to keep things level.

Each man again fought off break points, and this time it was Verdasco who suffered an overruled line call. Honours even, tempers kept under control—but only just.

Carreno Busta, however, was beginning more often to strike the winning blow amid gasps and raucous applause. The ball ricocheted from strings like the crack of a bullet, and it took just a couple of mistimed returns from Verdasco to lose his serve, 6-5. The lid he had kept on his emotions almost burst off, but for now, he kept it in place—just long enough to work a break-back point, long enough to play through four deuces, long enough to pull off a deft pick-up winner at the net.

But that was still not enough: Carreno Busta aced for the hold, 7-5, and Verdasco’s racket flew across the court in disgust.

This had, thus far, been the sharpest and most intense set of tennis a crowd for wish for. And it continued for another four games.

Verdasco, now serving first, survived a stern test in the third game from 15-40 down. He came through a third break point, too, but after a swift hold from Carreno Busta, the stressed 32-year-old Verdasco was at the line again, and this time, he was broken to love.

Here, then, was the Verdasco who runs the gamut of tennis from brilliant to dire in the space of minutes. His head dropped, he cast helpless looks at his box as first a second-serve ace then a drop shot left him rooted.

His solution was to swipe in fury at the ball—sometimes making a winner, more often a wild error, and it was clear this could only end one way. Carreno Busta saw that too, and became still more uninhibited in his ball-striking to break his despairing opponent for the match, 6-3.

At the last, this reverberating, dark-hued court fitted the mood perfectly—on Verdasco’s side at least.

As luck would have it, the very next match on Court 2 followed a not dissimilar path. Mischa Zverev, age 29, took on 18-year-old Taylor Fritz—separated by more than decade in age but by just one point in ranking, 72-73.

That negligible ranking held strong for the first set, but then it all fell to pieces for the young American, and the German white-washed Fritz after just 75 minutes of tennis, 7-6(4), 6-0.

Zverev will play a fresh Pella in the next round, while Carreno Busta can expect less of a cauldron atmosphere when he takes on No4 seed Marin Cilic, a match due to start at 3pm tomorrow—on Centre Court.

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