Australian Open 2015: Djokovic beats Verdasco, but veteran Spanish trio advances

Novak Djokovic beats Spain's Fernando Verdasco in straight sets to reach the fourth round in Melbourne

It has been a long-running theme in men’s tennis: The Spanish armada is one of the tour’s most dominant forces. And at this year’s Australian Open, no fewer than five reached the third round.

It is are a venerable army, too—big in ranking prowess as well as numbers. The biggest and most charismatic, No3 seed Rafael Nadal, has all the Grand Slam spoils—14 Major titles—and was already into the fourth round after a rousing return to form against Dudi Sela.

Remarkably, though, the 28-year-old Nadal is the oldest of the band. Not that the other four 30-somethings plying their trade in the top half of the draw were going anywhere soon.

The sultry serve-and-volleying No12 seed Feliciano Lopez is, at 33 years old, enjoying the highest ranking of his life and, with a game suited to the fast conditions in Melbourne this year, is making his presence felt. He advanced to the fourth round for only the second time in 13 appearances with a blistering win over the huge and talented Jerzy Janowicz, 7-6(6) 6-4 7-6(3).

The 31-year-old Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, formerly ranked 23 but now just outside the seedings in Melbourne, has ridden some good fortune this week. In the first round, he led by two sets to one when his opponent retired, sailed through this second match, and he overcame a physically compromised Vasek Pospisil, 6-2 6-4 6-4, to reach the last 16 in his 12th Australian Open.

Former world No3, David Ferrer, whose work-ethic and fighting spirit are a match even for his compatriot Nadal, rose to his highest ranking of No3 in 2013, slipped to his lowest in four years, a current No10, at the end of 2014, but at 32 years old, shows no sign of backing down. He began 2015 with a bang, winning the Doha title. And he arrived at his 13th Australian Open boasting at least quarter-final runs for the last four years. Now he bustled and battled against the highest-ranked opponent in the third-round, No18 seed Gilles Simon.

Ferrer eased to the first set, 6-2, but exchanged breaks twice with Simon in the second, before breaking the Frenchman a third time for the set, 7-5. The third was a reverse of fortunes, with one exchange of breaks before Simon went on a four-game run for the set, 7-5. There were still more breaks in the fourth, before the match was decided by a tie-break: Ferrer survived this punishing three and a half hour contest, 7-6(4).

The fourth of the Spanish quartet was reserved for four-time champion and top seed, Novak Djokovic, in what promised to be his sternest challenge so far.

The 31-year-old left-handed powerhouse Fernando Verdasco reached No9 in the world on the back of his best-ever Grand Slam run, here in Melbourne. In that semi-final, he played one of the most memorable matches in Grand Slam history, a stunning five-setter over five and a quarter hours against Nadal.

Since then, the Verdasco confidence has blown hot but mostly cold, and his tennis with it, to slip almost outside the seedings: He nabbed No31 courtesy of withdrawals further up the ranks.

Could he possibly find enough consistent form to trouble the best again? And Djokovic was beginning to look close to his best, just as he had in closing out 2014 with three titles from his last four tournaments, losing just one match, to Roger Federer, in the Shanghai semis.

Well he certainly found some fine form in the usual places: on serve and on his formidable forehand. Six times in the first set Verdasco fought off break points, the first in only the third game, then again at 4-4, and both times he produced a huge 134mph ace to hold.

It pushed Djokovic to a tie-break, where Verdasco took a narrow advantage, 3-1, with an even bigger ace. But Djokovic was more than able to stand his ground with some top-notch serving of his own. Looking cool, calm and collected, he won three points in a row for set point, saved by another Verdasco missile. Djokovic needed three more chances before he stole the set, 10-8, courtesy of three backhand errors from the Spaniard, bringing his total to 28.

Despite an immediate break in the second set, Verdasco showed flashes of brilliance that demanded total focus and accuracy from Djokovic. And that is just what the Serb delivered. Threatened at 0-40 in the third game, he fired down three aces to consolidate his 3-0 lead.

Still Verdasco held on by the skin of his teeth, producing a 137mph ace at break point in the fourth game and another in the face of two break points in the eighth, but he never looked like getting another break chance against a near-flawless Djokovic. With two love holds under his belt, the Serb served out the set, 6-3, this time with more aces than Verdasco and 17 winners to just four errors.

The Spaniard continued to stay with his attacking tactics, and the crowd loved it, cheering his every point in the hope of extending the match a little longer. But while Djokovic continued to cruise, Verdasco continued to pile on the errors.

In the third game, nos 41 and 42 took him perilously close to a break. It was the same in the fifth game, as long forehand exchanges eventually drew a Verdasco error and, sure enough, the break, after two pulsating hours of tennis. Verdasco fought to the bitter end, finding a 16th ace to hold for 4-5. Djokovic would have to serve it out, and of course he did, 6-4.

It was the performance of a man who knows he is the one to beat—though he would not say as much when asked by Jim Courier after the match.

“Credit to Fernando: It was a great match. He was a top-10 player… every time I got an opportunity, he came up with a big serve. [But] I think the difference was my winning the first set tie-breaker.”

And what of one of his best ever serving performances in Australia—11 aces, no double faults, and only 12 points dropped in 66 first serves?

“I did serve very well. Obviously that helps when you are against big servers. You have to stay composed and tough, and I went for more accuracy and precision.

“This is my most successful Grand Slam and I always play my best tennis on this court: hopefully I can keep that up.”

He added: “Obviously, I am not the only player who wants to win this trophy,” but he increasingly looks the favourite to do so, and that would make him only the second man ever to claim five Australian trophies.

He next faces the unseeded Gilles Muller, a surprise winner over No19 seed John Isner, 7-6(4), 7-6(6), 6-4.

Ferrer will next take on No5 seed Kei Nishikori, while Garcia-Lopez faces defending champion Stan Wawrinka.

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