Australian Open 2016: Verdasco rides Spanish wave over Nadal, and Hewitt thrills

Rafael Nadal is knocked out of the Australian Open in the first round by fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco

It seems like only yesterday, but it was seven years ago that Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco playing one of the finest, longest, and most memorable matches ever seen at the Australian Open.

Back then, Nadal was at the peak of his powers, world No1, owner already of five Grand Slam titles, and playing to reach his first Melbourne final.

He came up against compatriot Verdasco, also close to the peak of his powers, and his run to the semis in Australia would take him into the top 10.

Five and a quarter hours they would battle, with Verdasco winning his first sets in their seventh meeting but finally going down to the ultimate tennis warrior, 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-6(2), 6-7(1), 6-4.

By the time they met again in Australia, on the same court but against the very different backdrop of the first round, Nadal was still working his way back from a tough 12 months recovering from illness and surgery at the end of 2014. The signs were there, as the rankings proved: Up from No10 six months ago to be seeded No5. Verdasco, however, was coming from a different place, ranked 45 and with just one ATP250 title to his name since 2010, and nine first-round losses last year.

But it was as though the Rod Laver arena summoned the Verdasco of old, the flamboyant left-handed powerhouse of a man who can fire forehand winners at will. No doubt his recent successes over Nadal helped—Verdasco is nothing if not a confidence player—for he had won two of their last three matches, all three-setters, his first ever wins over Nadal.

Verdasco took on the role of aggressor from the start, and made five out of five when he got to the net. His pace was already forcing an uncharacteristic number of errors from Nadal, too, 15 of them to seven winners in a compelling 68-minutes set that went to Verdasco in a tie-break.

The clue to the balance of power was also in Verdasco’s stats. He was making more errors because he was going for his shots, and pulling off a huge number of winners into the bargain. But Nadal took the second hour-long set, 6-4, and looked to be taking control with two breaks in the fourth set, 6-3: He had now reduced his errors to only four against 17 by Verdasco, and looked the more energised of the two.

Verdasco seemed to realise that he had allowed Nadal to become the aggressor, and went on the attack again in the fourth, breaking in the first game. Nadal levelled at 5-5, but in the tie-break, the Verdasco forehand came to the party. It lost some points but it won more, and he closed out the set, 7-6(4) with an ace—his 23rd winner of the set. More impressive still, he had won 13 points out of 14 net approaches.

This was brave tennis, for Nadal was making few unforced errors—four in that 68-minutes fourth set. Nadal even started the better in the deciding set, going 2-0, but Verdasco fought off a break point in the third game with three aces—and that seemed to spark the magic again.

He turned on the forehand to sizzling effect, broke, and pulled off the running forehand pass of the tournament, a 179kph bullet down the line, to hold for love.

Verdasco never looked back, and Nadal’s first serve wilted under the pressure. Another break, another easy hold with his 20th ace, and he led 5-2, but was still not done. Having returned two backhands at Nadal’s feet, he stood at match point, and fired one last forehand winner to take it, 6-2.

The stats were eloquent: No matter that Nadal himself has been trying to develop a more aggressive game in recent months, Verdasco showed that, on his day, he has a big enough game to beat the best: 91 errors, maybe, but the reward was 90 winners, with 25 points won from 27 net plays.

Nadal ended that last Australian contest just one point to the good, 193 to 192. This time Verdasco had it by two, 182 points to 180, and in only 4hrs 40mins.

Nadal also ended that last Australian contest by going on to take his only title ‘down under’: This time he loses in the first round in Melbourne for the first time, and for only the second time in his entire 44-Grand-Slam career.

Verdasco next plays the 30-year-old No87 Dudi Sela and, playing in this form, he could feasibly make the fourth round and even the quarters, in a segment where the next highest seed, No11 Kevin Anderson, retired against Rajeev Ram. But that outcome lies in Verdasco’s inconsistent hands, as he afterwards admitted: “I just hit everything. I think I played unbelievable in the fifth set—after the break,he made me. I started hitting winners, I don’t know how… I was closing the eyes and everything was going in. I kept doing it and it worked well.

“Seriously, though, the fourth set I think I started serving better, and he started playing a bit worse. So I came inside the court, tried to be aggressive, and it went well.”

Perhaps he should write those words on his hand before every match.

More Spanish success

Spain’s most famous son may have lost at the hands of his 32-year-old compatriot, but Verdasco will not be alone in Round 2. With 15 Spaniards in the draw, the top half had already seen No26 seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Nicolas Almagro, No24 seed Roberto Bautista-Agut, and Albert Ramos-Vinolas go through, and they were joined by the evergreen No18 seed Feliciano Lopez, who lost just three points on his first serve in beating British qualifier Daniel Evans, 6-1, 6-0, 6-4.

Marcel Granollers beat Matthew Ebden, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, and in the longest match of the day, 33-year-old Tommy Robredo, formerly top five and currently No42, beat Malek Jaziri, 7-5, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(7), 8-6, after 4hrs 47mins, He now has the tough task of No13 seed Milos Raonic, who beat Lucas Pouille, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.

Yet another over-30 Spaniard advanced, No8 seed David Ferrer, who beat Peter Gojowczyk, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in a tidy hour and a half.

A ‘C’mon’ day for home fans

Ferrer’s win sets up one of the most highly anticipated Round 2 matches in the draw against one of the few men with the same never-say-die spirit and work-ethic as himself: Lleyton Hewitt.

Hewitt, twice a Grand Slam champion, is playing in a record 20th straight Australian Open—and his last ever tournament—so emotions have been high in Melbourne all week. The 34-year-old Aussie has bounced back many times from injury and surgery, but had made it past the fourth round of his home Major only once, to lose the 2005 final. As luck would have it, he was drawn against fellow Aussie James Duckworth, but there was never any doubting who the home crowd wanted—and boy did he produce, a 7-6(5), 6-2, 6-4 win completed with a pitch-perfect lob winner, in 2hrs 23mins.

He summed up the atmosphere in an emotional end-of-match interview: “I just came out and tried to stay in the moment as much as possible. Once I actually got into the match, and the crowd—look at this… this is what I’m going to miss most, the buzz. Doesn’t get any better.

“My family is one of the most satisfying things in my career, and the kids are now old enough to have life-long memories of this, dad being an old man and still limping about on the court! It’s been a lot of fun. I’m really proud that the family can enjoy this with me. Just trying to enjoy it as much as possible.”

Australia also celebrated victory for No16 seed Bernard Tomic, who put sickness concerns from last week behind him to beat Denis Istomin, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Big-serving Sam Groth also got the better of Adrian Mannarino, 7-6(6), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, while John Millman advanced when Diego Schwartzman retired.

Blood, sweat and toil: the long battles

No30 seed Jeremy Chardy eventually overcame Ernests Gulbis after more than four hours, 7-5, 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-3, 13-11.

It took Gilles Muller almost four hours to beat one of the few falling seeds, No20 Fabio Fognini, 7-6(6), 7-6(7), 6-7(5), 7-6(1), hitting 34 aces along the way.

Simone Bolelli, who played Brian Baker in the American’s first tour-level match in almost two and a half years, took 3hrs 39mins to win, 7-6(6), 7-6(3), 6-7(2), 7-6(5).

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