• Fernando Verdasco's career has always been overshadowed by Rafael Nadal. But for five hours 10 years ago, Verdasco pushed Rafa to the absolute brink. Relive that epic 2009 semifinal.
By Tristan Jung
January 18, 2019

Fernando Verdasco reaches the peak of his athletic potential on Jan. 30, 2009.

Having weathered four-plus exhausting hours of tennis against peak Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open, Verdasco digs into his soul and achieves tennis nirvana. The first point of the fourth set tiebreak is a 21-shot rally that seemingly breaks the laws of physics. On the 19th shot of the rally, Verdasco hits an angled forehand from behind the baseline that drags Nadal wider than the chair umpire’s tower. Unfazed, Nadal reaches the ball and slices it back—he is Nadal, after all—and Verdasco finishes the point with an authoritative, deep topspin forehand into the corner. 

Verdasco will win the first six points of the tiebreak, firing absurd forehand winners down the line and eventually winning the set 7-1. In the 80+ year history of the Australian Open, it was perhaps the most impressive individual performance in a tiebreak. The crowd gave a standing ovation. Watching an athlete reach peak ability—whether it be Simone Biles executing a perfect floor routine or a LeBron James thundering home a dunk or a Spanish lefty cracking forehands with abandon—is a beautiful sight. 

The 2009 Australian Open, now 10 years past, was about Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal. Both narratives were straightforward. Ten years ago, Williams cemented her first return from injury and demolished Dinara Safina in the final to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. Nadal proved he could win a hard-court major and defeated Federer in the final to retain his No. 1 ranking and take the third leg of his career Grand Slam. While the French Opens will always be at the forefront of Nadal's legacy, he is a phenomenal player on hard court when he is healthy and ready, as he is still proving today—Nadal reached the semifinal in Melbourne on Tuesday with a dominant performance over upstart American Frances Tiafoe

For most tennis fans, the five-set final between Federer and Nadal, after which Federer broke down in tears while receiving the runner-up trophy, is the blockbuster moment of the tournament. Historically speaking, the reinforcement of the mental block Nadal placed in Federer's head at the legendary 2008 Wimbledon final was the most important outcome of the tournament. But the final itself, which climaxed with a lame performance from Federer in the fifth set, was not fantastic tennis. With Nadal’s banana breaks, Federer’s repeated missed opportunities (he squandered six break points in the third), and a tired Nadal struggling to find consistent rhythm until the very end, its historical ramifications outweigh the quality of the actual event. 

The five-hour, 13 minute men’s semifinal (6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4) between Fernando Verdasco and Rafael Nadal is the more dramatic and memorable tennis match. The Australian Open YouTube channel, as of now, has the highlights from that match uploaded in their "classics" section. The Fedal final is not.

Part of its charm was its unlikelihood. Prior to the tournament, Verdasco’s career Tour-level record on hard court and carpet was just 89-82. He had only four career wins at the Australian Open in five years. To get to the semis, the No. 14 seed upset No. 4 Andy Murray, a rising champion who had won two Masters events in 2008 and held a 5-1 head-to-head over Verdasco to that point. He then upset No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals.

Nadal came in as a heavy favorite. While he had not yet made a Grand Slam final on hard court, he was coming off an Olympic Gold in Beijing and a semifinal at the U.S. Open. Ideally, he would quickly dispose of Verdasco, whom he owned throughout his career, and get some rest before facing Federer in the final. Federer received the benefit of playing his semifinal a full 24 hours before, when he defeated Andy Roddick in straight sets. Nadal, in theory, needed to match this and get to the locker room as quickly as possible.

But Verdasco was having none of it. Verdasco, like many tennis players, had found an extra spark for a few matches. He was in the zone in 2009, and the first set of the semifinal proved it. He won it 7-6 (4), saving break opportunities and firing a few excellent return points in the tiebreak. As the second set wore on, it quickly became emotional. Verdasco played with even more passion than the hyper-emotional Nadal. “Fiery” is the wrong word. Maybe “unhinged” works best, a fitting descriptor of his Mad Max tactics and lightning-quick forehand. On several occasions, Verdasco reacted to a lost point by jogging and skipping around the baseline for no reason.

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He was extremely aware of his position. Defeating Rafael Nadal? That's the most difficult proposition in tennis. It has confounded nearly every single tennis player on tour, from 37-year-old-Roger Federer to 19-year-old Alex de Minaur last Friday. For Verdasco, then 0-7 against Nadal in his career, the moment was enormous. For most of the match, he acted as if he was under the impression that if he lost, his tennis career would end immediately. Spanish honor taken from the bull ring and transplanted to a tennis court. Here are some selections of his manic state (and a comparison to 2019):

The level of tennis produced by the two lefties was off the charts. When Verdasco was fresh and dictating play, he was better than Nadal. His serve frequently hit 135 miles per hour, with all that lefty kick and movement. His forehand was riskier, but had an inherent explosiveness. His backhand, usually a liability, was good in this match. The match chart on Tennis Abstract, filled out by an admirable person who studied all five hours, had him at 26 backhand winners, which is not bad at all. But Verdasco's problem was that he could not sustain this level of play. Sometimes, it's just not fair:

Sometimes, it's not even human:

The beauty of this match was in its contradictions. Both players were clay court specialists adapting their games to a hard court that does not suit them. Both had made use of the lefty serve out wide to bedevil righties for their entire career. But in this match, their best serves were neutralized. On the chart, Nadal hit 41 serves down the T and just 17 out wide from the ad court; such was his respect for Verdasco's forehand. The match became a referendum on how well you can play as a power baseliner in the late 2000s. To that point, it was the longest Australian Open match of all time. 

Through it all, Nadal was imperturbable. While Verdasco's tiebreak was impressive, Nadal's ability to hunker down and serve in the fifth set proved decisive. He did not drop a single second point on his serve in the entire set. On the other side, it became a question of when Verdasco's mental clarity would waver. It had been—nay, has been—his problem for his entire career. He cannot think clearly and unlock his game for long enough stretches of time. Contrast that to Nadal, who has the most mental clarity of any player probably ever. With the serve rolling, Rafa was able to chip away at Verdasco's ability to stay in the fight. He forced eight break points in the fifth set, the first seven of which were admirably saved by Verdasco. On the eighth, he finally cracked. At 30-40, match point, Verdasco double faulted. He collapsed to the ground, head bent over his shoulders. Normally, when you play the best match of your life, you expect to win. But not against Rafa. 

“In the last game, at 0-40, I started to cry," Nadal said afterward. "It was too much tension. Fernando was playing, I think, at his best level. He deserved this final, too.”

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In 2019, Fernando Verdasco is still playing good tennis. His peak, during which he hovered around the top 10 for two years, is over, but he still manages to hang in the top 30. At this year's Australian Open, he found himself up two sets to love on No. 6 seed Marin Cilic in the third round. He was once again maxing out his athletic potential; he can't move as well as he used to, but he still has the talent to give Cilic fits. The third set went poorly. Verdasco lost all rhythm. He fought back and once again lurched into form in the fourth, forcing yet another fourth set tiebreak.

The nostalgia for Verdasco's fourth set tiebreak against Nadal in 2009 was inescapable. Could he find that again? He earned match point on his serve at 8-7. On a day where he hit 27 aces, all he needed to do was find one point to score his biggest upset in a major in years. 

He double faulted. Once again, Verdasco's lack of mental clarity failed him. 

He then received a time violation for being late to start the fifth set, perhaps still stewing over what happened. He capitulated and lost serve early in the decider. Cilic wins the fifth 6-3.

It's not fair to judge the tier of players below the Big Four in comparison to the greats. The Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils types are all amazing athletes who have had fantastic careers. But for Fernando Verdasco, it's impossible to not view his career through the prism of Nadal. They are both Spanish lefties who won their first ATP titles in 2004. They have won a Davis Cup together and are fixtures in the Spanish tennis scene. But Nadal is Mozart, the prodigy. Verdasco is the older but eternally disappointed Salieri. 

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Nadal is a global superstar and popular amongst millions. Verdasco is not. Sure, Verdasco avenged his defeat at the 2016 Australian Open, when it seemed to many like Nadal's time was nearly done. Since then, Nadal has won three more Grand Slams. Verdasco has spent the last year dogged by an outburst at a ball boy that caused a media firestorm, accusations of lying from Andy Murray and an investigation by the Tennis Integrity Unit for possible match-fixing at Wimbledon, which he furiously denied. This has overshadowed his rather impressive longevity and comeback from No. 88 in the world in 2016 to a solid No. 28.

But while watching Verdasco hit his peak during the 2009 match, it sems far away. There should be nothing physically stopping Verdasco from stardom. But that's the thing about tennis. With such thin margins, any significant lack of mental clarity is a major problem. And if it's persistent, then that player is never going to win seven consecutive five-set matches against the very best. Even if Verdasco won the semifinal, there's no way he could've even taken a set off Federer after playing Nadal for five hours. Meanwhile, Nadal played another five-hour match two days later. And won.  

This makes Verdasco merely a subplot. Even if he'd won, he'd still likely be a subplot. While fans love watching athletes reach their peak potential, the athletes who do it every single night are the ones they remember. But for five hours, Verdasco was one of the most entertaining tennis subplots in tennis history.

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