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Published:February 3rd, 2009 14:30 EST
Rafa Triumphs in Epic Semifinal to Advance

Rafa Triumphs in Epic Semifinal to Advance

By Christopher HIllenbrand

In last year`s Australian Open, Nadal lost to 38th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-2, 6-3, and 6-2, in the semifinals. And in fact, Rafa wouldn`t advance to an ATP final until March when he was defeated by Nikolai Davydenko in Miami. But in a stupendous march on through the year, Rafael Nadal won nine tournaments including winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year (the first time that was accomplished since Bjorn Borg equaled the feat in 1979 and 1980) and the men`s singles gold medal in Beijing. What made the achievement all the more impressive was the fact that he defeated who many call the greatest men`s tennis player in the open era: Roger Federer, in both contests. By August, Rafael Nadal overthrew Federer as the number one ranked men`s singles player in the world: a title Roger held for a record 237 consecutive weeks. And as of the new Tennis Open season, Rafael Nadal hasn`t disappointed his fans.

Rafael Nadal


For the first time in his career, the power southpaw grappled his way through to the final round of the Australian Open in Melbourne. And in accordance with his daring, without abandon, style of persevering, Nadal`s victory rewrote the record books. Nadal beat fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), and 6-4 in the longest match in Australian Open history. Their match lasted 5 hours and 14 minutes, which bested the previous record held by the 1991 third round meet up between Boris Becker and Omar Camporese by 3 minutes. Time-consuming matches aren`t anything new to Nadal, as this record equals the time it took for him to beat Guillermo Coria in the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Rome final back in May 2005.  Surprisingly least of all, Nadal`s record against his fellow countryman is a perfect 7 and 0.


The meeting was only the fourth all-Spanish Grand Slam semifinal since open era tennis began in 1968. In the fourth game of the first set, Verdasco appeared on the cusp of breaking Nadal`s serve until a groundstroke of his went long of the baseline at a prime opportunity when Nadal was out of position. To save face, Verdasco scrambled back with a pair of sizzling aces to win 2 break points giving them both 5 apiece. Fernando employed a tactic of charging the net and volleying whenever he`d get Nadal out in the open court, which helped bring him back from a 1 to 3 deficit. On the strength of a groundstroke winner that set up 2 crucial break points for the 25 year old, Verdasco finished the tiebreak with a forehand approach shot and forehand volleying winner. It took 75 minutes for the underdog to win the first set.


In the second set, both players were evenly matched where neither was able to break the other`s serve. But Nadal turned up his level of play on the 8th game and immediately pounced on his elder with 2 forehand winners. Though his clutch performance led to 4 break-serve chances for him, Nadal missed returning 3 ground strokes and was the victim of an ace bringing Verdasco back from the brink. Even with a 40 to 15 point lead with 4-5 win deficit, Verdasco couldn`t find it in him to serve for the win as Nadal prevailed to take the set.


Nadal`s confidence and form was just beginning to blossom while Verdasco`s was on the verge of a complete meltdown. Verdasco rushed his strokes and tried to strike angular shots even Nadal couldn`t make regularly just to come back in the 2nd game of the set. After making accurately placed serves and expert drop shots at the net, Verdasco saved 3 break points in the same game and contested Rafa to 6 deuces before the latter took a 2-0 lead with a forehand winner. The 14th seed in the world was able to hold love and broke Nadal`s serve to bring the set to 2-2. Each player alternated service breaks in the 6th and 7th games, bringing the set clincher to a tiebreak. Nadal lunged to a 4-1 and 5-2 lead, before putting the set away with an ace.


The fourth set featured both players exchanging service wins until Verdasco was sidelined momentarily with a strain to his left calf following the 5th game. But through injury, he played as perfectly as he ever had in the Open, only dropping a couple points and pushing the set to another pivotal tiebreak. Unlike the last set though, Verdasco vanquished Nadal with 6 successive winners to level the scoreboard at 2 apiece.


At first, Nadal`s game in the fifth set was primed to deny him the Semifinals win: he was helpless in converting 5 break point chances. The match at this point was already passing the prior mark of five hours, eleven minutes when Rafa broke Verdasco`s serve and won 3 consecutive points giving him the 40-0 advantage. Verdasco could only deny the inevitable by 2 forehand volley winners longer before he committed his 4th double fault, giving Nadal the set and the match.


The 2009 Australian Open will be Rafa`s 1st hard-court Grand Slam vie and 8th major overall in his career. But before Nadal faced Verdasco on Friday night, Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick on Thursday to advance to the Grand Slam Final. The upcoming final on Sunday night will be the 7th time Nadal and Federer will meet at a Grand Slam Championship, tying the record set by Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston who met at U.S. Championships from 1919 through 1925. Though Nadal will be looking for his first Grand Slam victory on a hard-court surface, Federer has history on the line as he will be striving towards his 14th Grand Slam Championship and a tie for first place with Pete Sampras who has the most.