By John Delong, Winston-Salem Open
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Fernando Verdasco knew it would be a tall order to beat top-ranked American Steve Johnson on American soil, especially on Johnson’s favorite surface. But the 32-year-old Spaniard was up to the challenge on Wednesday night, as he pulled out a 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory in the third round of the Winston-Salem Open.
The victory moved Verdasco, the tournament’s No. 15 seed, into quarterfinal action on Thursday against ninth-seeded Viktor Troicki. Troicki beat American Sam Querrey 6-2, 7-6 (5) in the other night match on Stadium Court.
Verdasco, a former World No. 7, has now beat Johnson all four times they have met, including in the first round at Roland Garros earlier this year.
“Everything was on clay before, so today I knew it was going to be different,” Verdasco said. “First, because it was hard courts. Second, because it was in the U.S., his country, and he has the support of almost all of the crowd. So I knew it was going to be a tough one, but I just went out and tried to do my game. Stay positive all the time and try to find the path of the game, the rhythm of the game. It was a close match. We both needed to run and fight many points. So I just tried my best and I was lucky to win.”
Verdasco came to the WSO ranked No. 47, after an up-and-down summer. He went to the quarterfinals in Atlanta before losing to eventual champion Nick Krygios, but then lost in the first round at Los Cabos. Then last week in Cincinnati, he lost in the second round to eventual champion Marin Cilic.
Earlier in the year, he won his seventh career ATP World Tour title in Bucharest.
“Every week is different for me,” Verdasco said. “I came to Las Cabos tired from Atlanta. It was very hot and humid. I only had a chance to practice once in Las Cabos and I lost, and I was feeling bad. Then the week after in Cincinnati I feel a little better, I have more time to prepare. And now I had more time to prepare here. I think it’s important to have the time to get ready for the tournament, to get used to it for the balls, the altitude, the humidity, the feeling on the court, because everything changes. So I’m just focused right now on this tournament, and I’m feeling good, and I will try to go as far as possible.”
Verdasco won the first set with a break in the final game. There were no breaks in the second set, and ultimately it came down to the tie-break. Verdasco got up an early mini-break and Johnson wound up having to save two match points. But at 7-7, Johnson netted a volley into a wide-open court, and Verdasco then ended the match with an ace.
“It’s frustrating,” Johnson said. “I had my chances and it just didn’t work out. It’s not ideal. I really wanted to stay here and make a deep run here. I was feeling good. But at the end of the day I just haven’t quite figured out Nando’s serve. He’s one guy, I don’t know why, it’s one of those things where it just doesn’t match up well for me. I’m right there and I’ve had my chances, I just haven’t taken advantage of them.”
Johnson came into the tournament as the No. 4 seed, after taking over as the top-ranked American at No. 21 earlier this week. He had beaten 2014 WSO champion Lukas Rosol in the second round.
Johnson had played 14 of the past 15 weeks, but he refused to blame the loss on fatigue.
“I felt fine,” he said. “My mind was into it. My heart was into it. Obviously I’m not 100 percent but I felt there was no big dip in my game. I served well. He played a great game to break me in the first and in the second I had more chances than he did, but it was just one of those days where it didn’t go my way. I’ve had a lot of matches go my way the last two months, so I’ve forgotten about this one already and I’ll move on to the Open and hopefully make a deep run there.”
Verdasco had beat American teenager Taylor Fritz in three sets in the second round on Tuesday night.
Troicki dominated Querrey in the evening finale on Stadium Court, knocking out the final American remaining in the field. He took the first set easily, missed one chance to serve out the match in the second, then rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the tie-break.
Troicki, currently ranked No. 35, had lost in the first round of his previous four tournaments, and hadn’t posted a match win since Wimbledon. He beat Kyle Edmund here in the second round.
“I think I played a very solid match,” Troicki said. “Until 5-4 I was winning my serves pretty easily, comfortable, so maybe I got tight and the crowd gave him good support. He made a few, I missed a few, that’s what happens when you don’t finish out the match. But luckily, I pulled it off in the tie-break and played some good tennis. I’m happy with the performance today and hope I continue this way to the end of the tournament.”
Troicki, who got his third career ATP World Tour title earlier this year at Sydney, said he was due for some good fortune after getting several difficult draws in recent weeks. He lost to eventual champion Marin Cilic in the first round at Cincinnati last week, and lost to eventual gold medalist Andy Murray in the Rio Olympics.
“This summer hasn’t been great with the results but I’ve had really tough draws,” he said. “Everyone I play seems to win the tournament. So I hope it’s my turn to go far somewhere. I think this is a great thing to play before a Slam. That’s what happened to me I won Sydney the week before the Australian Open, so that’s why I chose to play here.”
Querrey was not too distraught about his loss.
“I’m feeling all right going to New York,” he said. “I’ve still had a solid year. Even though the last few weeks haven’t been great, I’m still optimistic and I feel good.”
In the only other night match, on Court 2, second-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut advanced with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory over 14th-seeded Marcos Baghdatis.