January 30, 2009

¿Dónde están los "Guns"?

That was the sign flying in the stands during Rafael Nadal's quarterfinal match against Gilles Simon, apparently objecting that the world's #1 men's tennis player chose to wear short-sleeve tees at the Australian Open this year, rather than his signature arm-exposing tanks.

He didn't bare anything more during the semis, except during change-overs when he replaced a sweaty shirt, but his guns were out in full force against countryman Fernando Verdasco on Thursday.

Then again, so were his opponent's.

The year isn't even one month old, but I already know this will be one of the classics for 2009. The match started just before 4a.m. New York time -- when I tuned in around 5:30, the first set had barely ended. In 75 minutes neither man had been able to break the other's serve. But Verdasco, with triple the winners and four times the errors, pulled out the win in the tiebreak. I sat glued to my television while I should have been getting ready for work, afraid to miss a point of the second set. After another fifty minutes of amazing angles, unrelenting stretches, and ten-, fifteen-, even twenty-stroke rallies the match was tied a set apiece.

Needless to say I was late to the office.

When the third set tiebreak went to Rafa, Verdasco at first seemed defeated, like he'd expended all his energy early, and was now struggling to hold serves. But he brought his best stuff when the score was tied 3-3, unleashed menacing overheads, delicate drop shots and an inside-out forehand that kissed the lines. He won the third tiebreak of the match 7-1.

The fifth set started past midnight in Melbourne. Even after five hours of play, both Nadal and Verdasco looked spry and energetic -- as if they'd just walked on the court. Like in all Grand Slams the final set is not allowed to go to a tiebreak and, as had been the case since the third set, both men held onto their serves stubbornly. The first and only break came in the tenth game, disappointingly on a double fault by Verdasco -- just his third fourth of the entire match.

And so #1 Rafael Nadal will meet #2 Roger Federer in the finals on Sunday -- the first time they do so with those rankings. Finally.

Roger must be breathing a sigh of relief -- he's had an extra day and a much easier match in the semis to recover from. If Rafa is even a little off his game, this could be the chance for Federer to tie Pete Sampras's long-standing record. For Nadal, this is a chance to prove his dominance on all surfaces -- he's never made a final in a hardcourt major.

But I wonder if the semifinal wasn't really the showdown of the tournament. It was the longest match ever played at the Australian Open, the third longest at any Slam. Verdasco showed he is far better than his #14 seed suggested -- if his upsets of Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier this week didn't prove it, today's game certainly did. He's only won two titles in his career -- one in 2004 and one at last year's teeney Umag tournament in Croatia -- but I think he's poised to take 2009 by storm. If nothing else, he showed in Melbourne that he was not going to back down from any fight.

I've said before that the Australian Open tends to be a stage for new stars -- and my guess is that Fernando Verdasco will be this year's sparkler.

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