Image: Spain’s Rafael Nadal waves to the crowd as he leaves after losing his first round match against Spain’s Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park, Australia, January 19, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rafa Nadal was bundled out of the Australian Open first round on Tuesday, toppled by countryman Fernando Verdasco in a five-set marathon that left the centre court crowd stunned and the former world number one’shattered.
The 7-6(6) 4-6 3-6 7-6(4) 6-2 loss was the 2009 champion’s first in an opening round at Melbourne Park and only his second first-round loss in a grand slam.
Leading 2-0 in the final set, Nadal was in the box seat to prevail in a highly physical encounter, but world number 45 Verdasco dragged himself off the canvas to win six straight games with a barrage of forehand winners.
“He was playing amazing in the last set,” a gutted Nadal told reporters. “He had a lot of success (with) all the balls hitting full power in the fifth.
“The real thing is I was not aggressive enough with my forehand during the whole match.
“I didn’t feel it. I tried. I fought. I was ready to do it, and I didn’t. So I am sad for that.”
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.
Nadal’s only other first-round defeat in a grand slam was against Belgium’s Steve Darcis at Wimbledon in 2013.
Verdasco sealed the four hour and 41-minute classic in style, breaking Nadal’s serve for a third time in the set with a flashing crosscourt winner.
“I just hit everything. I think I played unbelievable in the fifth set from the break,” Verdasco, beaten by Nadal in the 2009 semi-finals, 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.”
Nadal had spoken of bringing “happy feelings” to Melbourne Park, having arrived at his healthiest in years following a taxing off-season training camp.
But his exit will do little to dispel the belief that the 14-times grand slam champion’s best days are behind him.
Verdasco was inspired, however, mixing 90 winners with 91 unforced errors as he gained partial revenge for his epic five-set defeat by Nadal seven years ago in 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.
Fortune often favours the brave and a mis-hit return off the frame of Verdasco’s racket clipped the line and allowed him to break back in the decider.
He raised his hands in apology before racing to one of his finest victories, while landing a hammer blow to Nadal’s early-season confidence.
“It’s tough especially because it’s not like (it) was here last year,” added Nadal, beaten by Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals last year when on a comeback from injury.
“This year was a completely different story — I had been playing and practising great and working so much.”
(Editing by Martyn Herman/John O’Brien)
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