By Ian Ransom
Fernando Verdasco sent shockwaves through the Australian Open on Tuesday by defeating Rafa Nadal 7-6(6) 4-6 3-6 7-6(4) 6-2 to send the former world number one crashing out in the opening round.
The first-round exit was the 2009 champion’s first at Melbourne Park and only his second at such an early stage in a grand slam.
Down 2-0 in the final set, world number 45 Verdasco dragged himself off the canvas with a barrage of booming forehand winners, breaking Nadal twice to move to the brink of victory.
He then broke his compatriot a third time, sealing the four hour and 41-minute classic with a cross-court winner that left the Rod Laver Arena crowd stunned late in the day session.
“I just hit everything. I think I played unbelievable in the fifth set from the break,” Verdasco said in a courtside interview.
“I just started hitting winners. I don’t know how. I was closing the eyes and everything when I was coming in.
“I kept doing it so it went well.”
After shaking hands with his opponent and the chair umpire Nadal strode quickly off the court, barely pausing to acknowledge the crowd with a wave.
The only other time Nadal was beaten so early in a grand slam was when Steve Darcis sent him crashing out of Wimbledon in 2013.
“The match is five sets… he was playing amazing in the last set,” Nadal told reporters. “He had a lot of success all the balls hitting full power in the fifth.”
Before the tournament, Nadal had spoken of bringing “happy feelings” to Melbourne Park, after arriving his healthiest in years following a taxing off-season training camp.
But his exit will do little to dispel the belief that the 14-time grand slam champion’s best days are behind him.
Nadal failed to progress further than the quarter-final of any of the grand slams last season, his first without a major trophy since 2004.
Verdasco was inspired, however, hauling himself back from the brink with a stand-and-deliver game that mixed 90 winners with 91 unforced errors.
It was partial revenge for his loss in an epic five-set semi-final against Nadal in the 2009 tournament, the second longest match recorded at the Australian Open.
The 32-year-old served masterfully in each tiebreak, particularly in the second to keep the match alive, but wobbled early in the fifth when he was broken early.
Fortune often plays a part in the defeat of Nadal and so it proved for Verdasco, who swung wildly at a second serve with the frame of his racquet, sending the ball cross-court to clip the line and break back to 2-2.
He raised his hands in apology before acing Nadal to nudge ahead and ramped up the aggression on his more fancied opponent’s serve.
The pressure told on Nadal, who made his sixth double-fault to concede a break point, and Verdasco outfoxed the Spaniard in a fierce baseline rally to capture the decisive break.
A raging ball of fire, Verdasco roared on to complete one of his finest victories and land a hammer blow on Nadal’s early season confidence.
“It’s tough especially because it’s not like it was here last year,” added Nadal, who was beaten by Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals a year ago.
“This year was a completely different story – I had been playing and practising great and working so much, so it’s tough when you work so much and you arrive at a very important event and you go out so early.”