Australian Open 2016: Rafael Nadal crashes out at hands of Fernando Verdasco

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Seven years ago, Rafael Nadal outlasted Fernando Verdasco in a semi-final that, to that point, was the longest Australian Open match in history: five hours, 14 minutes.

History repeated at Melbourne Park on Tuesday, as Nadal and Verdasco produced a sequel that proved nearly as lengthy, but this time the original epic was eclipsed in this critical, unthinkable respect: Nadal lost.

In the Australian Open’s most significant upset yet, Verdasco ousted Nadal 7-6, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2. What made the result most surprising was the nature of the defeat: Nadal had led 2-0 in the fifth set – at which point, you wouldn’t have backed Verdasco with counterfeit money.

But Verdasco, who belted 90 winners in the course of the 4 hours 41 minutes, unexpectedly raised his game and then reeled off both a succession of winners, aces and games. He won the last six games and essentially dusted a passive Nadal off the court.

A typically generous Nadal said he had his chances, but had been beaten by a man who had chanced his arm and played the better tennis. “I had my chances in the fourth (set) too… He played better than me. He was more aggressive than me. He took more risks than me.”

Nadal, indeed, had not played daring enough tennis and thought he was caught between attacking and defending. “You cannot be in the middle of being offensive and defensive.”

Verdasco said of his fifth set run: “I think I played unbelievable in the fifth set….I kept hitting winners…I don’t know how.”

It was surprising, and thrilling – though it is also reasonable to wonder if we were seeing confirmation of Nadal’s gradual decline, as his body’s struggles begin to afflict his own faith. He entered the tournament expressing confidence in his body and training, but he did not produce it and has been sent out in the first round of a major for only the second time.

The outcome was a reversal of the normal pattern for Nadal, who is harder to beat in battles of will and endurance than nearly anyone in the game’s history. That he lost the first set was no cause for concern for Rafa fans – it merely confirmed that this match would be a long day’s journey into night.

No matter how long it went, no matter how he battled against the explosive Verdasco, it was hard to believe that Nadal would actually lose. Nadal doesn’t lose these type of contests and he certainly doesn’t exit grand slams on Monday or Tuesday.

Even though the opening two sets stretched for more than two hours, Nadal seemed likely to prevail for much of the match. He not only led two sets to one after dropping the first set, he also led 2-0 in the fifth set and broke back in the fourth set at 5-all.   Verdasco hasn’t beaten Nadal much, as the 14-3 record suggests, but Verdasco’s A game is formidable, befitting a player who’s been top 50 for a dozen years.

Fernando has weapons – a monstrous left-handed serve, a heavy-duty forehand and some net craft. He was the aggressor v Nadal, and did particularly well finishing at the net. Verdasco belted an astonishing 90 winners to his more decorated compatriot’s modest 37.

This time, the attacker won.

Where does this leave Nadal? Measured by results, 2015 was his least productive year since he was an precocious teen in 2004 – which is to say, he didn’t win the French Open. Yet, he finished the year ranked 5.

If he’s coming down, he’s descending from an almighty height.

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