For seven years, Fernando Verdasco has been haunted by his five-hour five-set defeat to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open 2009 semi-finals in which he double-faulted on match point to end what had been one of the greatest matches ever to be played in Melbourne.
Verdasco watched that match “many times” ever since and everywhere he went, people spoke to him about it. Even two days ago, some people at his hotel stopped him to talk about it and he told them he was going to face Nadal at the Australian Open the next day.
So it’s understandable that when their first round showdown on Tuesday on Rod Laver Arena entered a fifth set, flashes of that epic from seven years ago popped in Verdasco’s mind, reminding him of that painful double-fault.
Nadal, who had taken a two-sets-to-one lead yesterday after dropping the first set, raced to a 2-0 advantage and looked on his way to securing another five-set triumph over his fellow Spaniard.
But this time, Verdasco struck back with a vengeance as he shrugged off the early setback to take the next six games in a row and register a stunning 7-6(6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 win over the fifth-seeded Nadal in four hours and 41 minutes. The Madrileño sealed it so nonchalantly with a crushing return winner - his 90th winner of the match – to hand Nadal only his second-ever grand slam first round exit.
Verdasco, formerly ranked No7 but now a lowly 45, spent the majority of the match – particularly the fifth set - in such a rare zone of free-hitting madness , he clearly surprised himself as well as the Aussie crowd. “I just hit every… sorry I need to eat, if not, I’m dead,” an exhausted Verdasco told Jim Courier, chewing some much-needed recovery food.
“I think I played unbelievable the fifth set from the break he made me. I just started hitting winners, I don’t know how. I was closing the eyes and everything was coming in, I kept doing it and it went well.”
Verdasco later said in his press conference: “Of course the beginning of the fifth I was for a second thinking about that semi-final. I was like ‘please, I don't want to lose with a double-fault in 5-4, 30-40.”
The outcome was not even close as Verdasco unleashed one winner after another, some of his forehands clocking at 180km/hr, which is faster than an average Nadal serve.
The 32-year-old could not find a proper explanation as to how he pulled it all off so emphatically. “I don't know. Some inspiration (pointing to the sky),” he said smiling.
Nadal conceded that the defeat is one tough pill to swallow especially that he came into the tournament feeling great, practicing well and looking to apply the changes he’s been making to his game.
The world No5 regretted not taking the opening set, which he says was not a good one from Verdasco, and his failure to capitalise on that allowed his opponent to gain confidence and hit more freely.
Nadal played doubles with Verdasco in Doha two weeks ago and they plan on teaming up at several tournaments this year with one eye on the Olympics in Rio. The two Spanish lefties know each others’ games inside out and Nadal knew that Verdasco’s form going into the match had not been great.
Which makes the way Verdasco managed to elevate his level towards the end all the more impressive.
“In my opinion, he played better than what he was doing the last couple of months, especially in the last two sets. He played so aggressive, and the serve was huge for him today. He played better than me. He played more aggressive than me. He took more risks than me, and he won. Probably he deserved,” said Nadal calmly.
Verdasco is the latest in a string of big-hitters to have upset Nadal over the past couple of seasons. Nadal feels the sport is changing with players going for winners from the first shot rather than building up the rallies and it is something he should start doing himself.
“Game become a little bit more crazy in this aspect,” is his assessment.
“The real thing is I was not enough aggressive with my forehand during the whole match. I didn't feel it. I tried. I fighted. I was ready to do it, and I didn't. So I am sad for that.”
Verdasco, who is now 3-14 lifetime against Nadal, takes on Dude Sela in the second round.
2014 champion Stan Wawrinka cruised into the second round after Dmitry Tursunov retired while down 6-7 (2), 3-6.
Lleyton Hewitt, playing the final tournament of his career, lives to fight another day as he beat fellow Aussie James Duckworth 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-4 to set up a second round with David Ferrer.