Australian Open

Rafael Nadal vs Fernando Verdasco, Australian Open 2009

The Greatest Matches in Australian Open History #2

We look back at the greatest matches in Australian Open history rolls on. In case you missed them, read again on our previous matches:

10. Rafael Nadal vs Grigor Dimitrov 2017

9. Marat Safin vs Andre Agassi 2004

8. Younes El Aynaoui vs Andy Roddick 2003

7. Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras 2000

6. Novak Djokovic vs Stan Wawrinka 2013

5. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal 2017

4. Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal 2012

3. Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer 2009

Match #2 match on our list is the 2009 Australian Open semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco. Take a stroll down memory lane and watch it in full below:

Full Match Replay

Five set matches were common beyond normality at the 2009 Australian Open. 23, to be precise, were played at Melbourne Park nine years ago, during what is still one of the very best Grand Slam tournaments to have transpired in the open era. Of those numerous five-setters, few have left as large an imprint on Australian Open history as that which saw a pair of Spanish southpaws combine to create 385 points worth of deliciously intense shotmaking pyrotechnics.

Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco jousted with their groundstrokes throughout their five-hour, 14-minute semi-final, but they fought tirelessly with their hearts and minds too; the flint-hard resolve of both competitors contributed to making this match one of some renown as much as the excellence of the tennis did.

Verdasco, annealed by coming through a highly interesting full-distance match with Andy Murray in the fourth round and a moderately challenging four-set quarter-final with 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, entered Rod Laver Arena for his first major semi-final bursting with a level of self-belief that made the possibility of him upending a third top 10 seed in a row far from unlikely. His forehand, equally a product of sinuous fluidity and exquisitely technical liquid whip, had wrought destruction on every opponent he had faced up to that stage of the tournament and is still to this day one of the few capable of matching Nadal’s rpm for rpm, mph for mph. He can utilize it to blast winners past the tour’s finest human backboards (Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, Ferrer et al.) with projectile force, or hit it in such a way as to wrap around the outside edge of the ball, helping him to generate stunningly acute angles. When he attacks with the forehand at full tilt, Verdasco is a man to be feared because he can take the racket out of his opponent’s hands, almost in a literal sense.

Nadal had managed no more than one semi-final appearance at the Australian Open before 2009 and would’ve been grateful to Verdasco for taking care of Tsonga, for it was the affable Frenchman who had stopped the King of Clay dead in his tracks in the last four the previous year.

For Nadal’s part, it appeared a first hard-court Grand Slam final was close at hand after he defeated the man who gave him a shellacking in the last eight of the 2007 Australian Open — Fernando Gonzalez — and dealt a straight-set beating to Tsonga’s countryman Giles Simon in the ensuing quarter-final. Of course, that held only insofar as he could handle a Verdasco who had caught lightning in a bottle over the first ten days of 2009’s opening slam. Nadal’s head-to-head history with Verdasco stretches back to January 2005, and he had beaten the 14th seed all six times they had played before this occasion, for the loss of just a single set.

As the top seed and world number one, Nadal was better placed than anyone to withstand Verdasco’s superlative seam of form, even without a propitious head-to-head record against the Madrid native to draw reassurance from.

First Set

Both Verdasco and Nadal required a handful of baseline exchanges to tamp down their nerves – unforced errors decided the first four points of the opening game. Verdasco claimed that game, which was on his serve, after being taken twice to deuce. In the one that followed, Nadal went 40-0 up, at which point Verdasco decided to fire a forehand or two across the bow.

Nadal held to 30 in the end, but Verdasco sent an unambiguous message in his first return game that he was up for the scrap. During his next turn serving, he reiterated that message by holding to love in a little over a minute. The match was scarcely over ten minutes old, and already the underdog had thrown down the gauntlet.

In the fourth game, Verdasco earnt himself a look at breaking the Nadal serve. Initially, he did all the right things to make that happen: hitting an aggressive return down the middle and keeping his rally ball close to Nadal’s baseline, before painting the sideline with an inside out forehand. Nadal got a racket on Verdasco’s would-be winner and forced him to play one more shot, which was an overhead smash Verdasco sent narrowly long. In surviving through the first of many testing passages of play, Nadal secured a second hold in as many service games. A spate of vigorous rallies followed in the fifth game, the first two of which Verdasco won. Although he seemed to have control of the game at 40-0, a blip in his concentration meant that he had to go to deuce again to hold.

The second half of the set was predominantly a server’s paradise; neither player threatened the other’s serve to any notable degree until Verdasco was serving to take a 6-5 lead. He faced breakpoint after faltering with a forehand at 30-30 but wiped it out with one swing of the racket. A backhand miss in the first deuce point again put him in danger of dropping his serve. That mistake, however, did not make Verdasco lose faith in his less potent wing, as he produced a crosscourt drive deep and accurate enough to force his opponent to float a defensive slice wide. Verdasco found his way out of that game without any further complications and Nadal held in the twelfth game, so in to a tiebreak, they went.

Three consecutive points went with serve to start the tiebreak, then Verdasco blinked first when he failed to find the court with a routine backhand. Nadal lost his grip over the mini-break in the next point and relinquished the momentum completely after going 4-3 up. He could only look on as Verdasco hit a smash winner and an ace, followed up by a backhand down the line that clipped the tape and landed in by micrometres. Rattled by the surge in Verdasco’s level as well as the indiscriminate cruelty of the net cord, Nadal went to the drop shot on set point. Verdasco chased it down as if he’d been telegrammed Nadal’s intentions, stroked a forehand down the line, then proceeded to volley Nadal’s weak reply into the open court. Upon losing the tiebreak by 7 points to 4, Nadal could be sure he had a match on his hands if he was in any doubt up to that point.

Nando Hand 1068x709

Second Set

Regardless of how discomposed the world number one might have felt after being outplayed at the tail end of the first set, he revealed it neither in his countenance nor in the way he began the second. Nadal, as ever, focused on playing the opponent and let the scoreboard take care of itself. He and Verdasco both held to love in their opening service games. Nadal dropped three points across his first three service games of the set, but Verdasco, incredibly, lost none.

On surfaces other than clay, Nadal lacks the predatory aggression when returning serve that comes naturally to the likes of Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori. Nonetheless, it was unusual to see him reduced to a bystander during return games for a good portion of the second set. To his credit, Verdasco varied the speed and placement of his serve impeccably well, in addition to dominating the rallies whenever his first or second delivery came back with any interest.

Eventually, his streak of points won on serve ended at thirteen in the eighth game. Nadal immediately sprang into action, creating his first break chance since the eleventh game of the first set. Verdasco found one of his best slice serves on the ad side to erase it. Nadal reapplied the pressure and soon forced another breakpoint – then a second, a third and a fourth. Verdasco came up with the requisite amount of high-risk, high-reward tennis to avoid getting broken, though by this time Nadal had sunk his talons into the Verdasco serve and he wasn’t about to relent.

Once he had won the ninth game, the Mallorcan made it his priority to put Verdasco under the cosh. That Verdasco was unable to close out the game in which he served to prolong the set from 40-15 up only added fuel to Nadal’s pursuit of the decisive break.

Nadal, from what I have learned by observing how he operates at the business end of sets, has an innate ability to gauge the emotional state of whoever he is playing against and make them doubt themselves by raising his game when the stakes are at their highest.

Thus, it is no surprise that Nadal dialled up the heat on his forehand at a time when he could exploit Verdasco’s regret over wasting those two game points. To finish one of the most dazzling rallies of the match, he whipped a spectacular “banana shot” winner on the run. His reward? The first sniff at a set point. Verdasco promptly gave the set away with a forehand error, and Nadal’s resulting celebration evinced his relief at getting back into the match.

Nadal Fiasco 2009

Third Set

A service hold and an early break of Verdasco’s serve put Nadal in a temporary position of ascendancy in the third set – temporary because he was broken back to love in the third game. Verdasco subsequently held to restore parity, which soon turned into a deficit after Nadal copped another break in the sixth game. For the second time that set, Nadal then neglected to press home the advantage, and Verdasco drew level by winning his next service game. Although Verdasco’s unforced errors for the third set numbered 17 by the middle of the eighth game, winners were cascading freely enough from his side of the net to offset the streakiness of his play.

The back half of the third set paralleled the latter part of the first in that neither Verdasco nor Nadal made much of an impact on return. Having twice been a break down in the third, Verdasco was fortunate that he and Nadal were all square after 12 games; it told in the way that the higher-ranked Spaniard dictated the tiebreak from start to finish. Like in the first set tiebreak, Verdasco hurt his cause by committing an unforced error to concede the early mini-break. This time, Nadal was fiercely protective of his lead and from 3-1 ahead lost only one more point during the remainder of the breaker.

Fourth Set

By and large, the fourth set was the most tightly contested of the match – gone was the spasmodic unevenness of sets 2 and 3. This segment of the match is remarkable alone for a couple of the “point of the tournament” contenders it contains: One when Nadal was serving at 3-4, which provides perhaps the most precise distillation of his unique defensive skills that I have ever seen. Another in the following game, a rally Verdasco won after sending Nadal scurrying over every inch of the baseline, only to leave him flat-footed with a fizzing backspin drop shot. A tiebreak, inevitably, was the only way to separate them; either Nadal would curtail the spectacle then, and there or Verdasco would ensure that the show goes on for one more set.

The question I find myself mulling over whenever I revisit the fourth set tiebreak is: Was its outcome caused by Nadal fluffing his lines or did Verdasco seize the moment in a fashion that wouldn’t have allowed for anything other than a blowout in his favour? Considering the number of winning forehands Verdasco produced in the tiebreak—he ended three of eight points by hitting one of his trademark lefty screamers—the premise of the question seems almost insensitive towards Nadal.

Indeed, Nadal was conservative with the placement of some of his shots, understandably so given the magnitude of this juncture within the context of the match. Verdasco, however, was unplayable for the most part. Except for a missed return in the 7th point of the breaker, he pulled off all the absurdly ambitious shots he attempted during eight minutes of unutterably nerveless ball striking. Although tennis stats do sometimes have a habit of distorting what goes on in matches, Verdasco’s 21-9 winner to unforced error ratio (W/UFE) in the fourth set bespoke of his sustained willingness to go for, and ability to execute, difficult shots while contending against a very capable retriever (to say the least). His excellent performance in the tiebreak was in keeping with that trend.

Judging by the way Nadal blitzed through the third set tiebreak, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the fourth set had turned out to be the last of the match, and, therefore, the epilogue to Verdasco’s revelatory run Down Under. In my estimation, one of the least heralded aspects of Verdasco’s magnificent showing that January is how valiantly he competed when having to come back from behind.

Against Murray in the last 16, Verdasco trailed by two sets to one, at which point most people would’ve expected him to fold submissively in the fourth. Yet, the then 25-year-old Verdasco maintained a phlegmatic cast of mind and overcame a player who not only was picked out as the favourite to win the 2009 Australian Open but also held a commanding lead over him in their head-to-head (and still does). Verdasco is known to be a practitioner of mindfulness techniques – whatever alchemy helped him rescue that match against Murray must have been with him in the fourth set of his semi-final clash with Nadal.

Fifth Set

As fifth sets go, the one in this match wasn’t the most memorable; its incidence, notwithstanding, felt like nothing less than a necessity. Owing to the quality of the four that preceded it, a fifth set was the climactic conclusion that the match, the crowd, the players and tennis itself deserved.

Nadal started the stronger of the two in the decider, snatching six straight points to make the score 1-0, 0-30 with Verdasco serving second. Soon enough, he had two opportunities to obtain a break, but Verdasco held firm and levelled for 1-1. Four games later, Nadal came within touching distance of a breakthrough; once more, Verdasco slammed shut the door to his illustrious compatriot’s first Australian Open final, courtesy of an ace. This problem-filled period on the Verdasco serve segued into a mini-crisis for Nadal on his, as he extricated himself from a 0-30 hole in the ninth game to hold.

It’s a crying shame that Verdasco’s powers of perseverance, which had shown so few signs of waning throughout the set, left him completely when he was serving to stay in the match for the first time. Back-to-back unforced errors precipitated his confrontation with the precipice of elimination; a pair of successful net approaches, which were bookended by two timorous double faults, sufficed not to spare him from defeat. But it was the best kind of loss; that kind which makes one wish there were such a thing as a “tie” in tennis. The gigantic sum of Verdasco and Nadal’s efforts demanded that they both be recompensed, and as a result, it was sad to see the former receive none of the spoils.

A Reflection

Not unlike previous Australian Open epics, this absorbing encounter ran into the small hours of the morning, and the 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7(1), 6-4 scoreline is indicative of how easily it could have gone the other way. Even though Verdasco struck a colossal 95 clean winners, the differential between that figure and his tally of unforced errors was 19, which left his W/UFE ledger comfortably in the black. Nadal’s winner count of 52 is less arresting on its face, but what may have won him the match was the fact that he committed only a third of Verdasco’s number of unforced errors, not to mention the importance of how much closer his W/UFE ratio was to 2:1 overall.

In the championship match, Nadal took on Roger Federer, whose frictionless victory over Andy Roddick in the other semi-final couldn’t have contrasted with the penultimate men’s match of the tournament any more starkly. It was a happy ending for Nadal, though the rest of his season featured its fair share of lowlights – induced mostly by the patellar tendonitis flare-ups that waylaid him before he went on to capture three slams the following year. Verdasco, meanwhile, emerged from the crucible of his Australian Open loss to enjoy the most successful phase of his career, which lasted until the Autumn of 2010.

Intriguingly, Nadal and Verdasco happened into an Australian Open rematch sometime after their most highly-rated career meeting. If revenge is a dish best served cold, Verdasco should be pleased that he had to wait all of seven years to get his own back in the form of a 7-6(6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 triumph.

Why does this match not carry quite such a pharaonic reputation, despite its being a supremely entertaining contest characterized by a similar recipe of strenuous baseline bashing interlaced with flashes of forehand-centric brilliance? For one thing, it was an afternoon first-round match, not an evening session semi-final. Additionally, neither Nadal nor Verdasco were playing like their 2009 selves in 2016, having both declined considerably. I could go on. All in all, the 2016 sequel doesn’t have a case to be ranked among the top 10 greatest Australian Open matches of all time; it is, on the other hand, a fitting companion to the original, which more than certainly does.

 

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