January 19, 2016
Rafa Nadal suffered his only first-round exit from the Australian Open when he was outgunned by the outrageous aggression of Fernando Verdasco.
An incredible 90 winners seemed to come from another planet as Verdasco roared to a 7-6 (8-6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 victory with a power and accuracy rarely seen before.
He was 0-2 and break point down in the final set before he unleashed everything he had, or dreamed of having, to run away with it.
‘I played unbelievably in the fifth set,’ Verdasco said. ‘I don’t know how I did it. I closed my eyes and everything went in.’
Nadal seemed equally at a loss to explain what had happened. ‘It’s tough because it’s not like last year when I arrived playing bad. I had been playing and practising great,’ he said.
So we can put this win down to Verdasco’s virtuoso display more than Nadal’s failings. And yet…would the Nadal of old have allowed this to happen? Is he missing the firepower and confidence these days to hold his own when the winners start pinging off his opponent’s racquet?
Rafa will now go to the French Open knowing that he hasn’t won a Slam for two years. Some will be wondering whether he will ever win one again. The great man has been written off before and bounced back. He has a few months to find the answers before his favourite Slam at Roland Garros. Perhaps next time the much-loved Rafa will be supplying the surprises.
Meanwhile the much-fancied Simona Halep was swept out of the women’s tournament by a Chinese qualifier, causing floods of tears on both sides.
Zhang Shuai, the world number 133, won 6-4, 6-3 to register her first Grand Slam victory at the 15th time of asking. The tears rolled down Zhang’s cheeks and those of her coach too, as the enormity of the upset dawned upon them.
Poor Halep was crying too, as if at a loss to explain another early exit, having struggled at Wimbledon last summer as well.
But she wasn’t the only big name to be knocked out on this day of shocks. Venus Williams, 35, succumbed to Johanna Konta, the Aussie-turned-Brit, and it might be said the eleven-year age gap took its toll.
Not that Konta was buying that theory after her 6-4, 6-2 victory. She said: ‘It’s irrelevant how old she is because she is such a champion with so much experience and knowledge. I have all the respect for her in the world.’
Despite those kind remarks, it could have been even worse for Williams had she not broken back when the winner was serving for the match.
Elsewhere, Jeremy Chardy’s 13-11 final set victory over Ernests Gulbis provided another highlight on a day when the thrills and spills of Grand Slam tennis came at a furious pace, leaving us wondering what on earth will happen next at the Australian Open.