In the weeks leading up to the 2009 Australian Open, most close followers of the game fully expected a magnificent opening to the season. Everything pointed to a riveting tournament for the men. Novak Djokovic was back to defend his crown. Roger Federer was there to restore his authority and chase a record tying 14th Grand Slam Championship. Andy Murray seemed poised to collect his first major after a brilliant second half of 2008 and an impressive start in 2009. And last, but not least, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal was utterly determined to prevail for the first time at a Grand Slam event on hard courts. With so many exhilarating possibilities, how could we go wrong?
Quite clearly, this was one of those rare moments when a big tournament was every bit as good as we could have anticipated, and possibly better. In the end, of course, it was Nadal more than anyone else who made the Australian Open sparkle. It was Nadal who competed for a total of nine hours and 37 minutes in ten soul searching sets in the semifinals and final to garner his sixth major championship so deservedly. It was Nadal who demonstrated once more that no one can match his mental toughness, his steely resolve under pressure, his durability and unflappability through long skirmishes against the fiercest of adversaries.
Defeating Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer in back to back five set contests at the end of the fortnight was an astounding feat that even the indefatigable Nadal might not be able to replicate. His marathon five hours, 14 minute confrontation with the vastly improved Verdasco was a gripping spectacle. Verdasco had made considerable progress across 2008, finishing the season at No. 16 in the world after peaking earlier in the year at No. 11. He had trained with vigor in the off season under the guidance of the renowned Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi’s fitness guru. He had come into this major with a sense of self he had never known before.
Before Verdasco arrived for his appointment in the penultimate round with Nadal, he had raced through the first three rounds at the cost of a mere 12 games in nine sets, setting an Open Era record in the process. In the round of 16, he won a somewhat bizarre battle with Murray, rallying admirably for a 2-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph over the No. 4 seed. I thought Murray would have a distinct advantage by having the luxury of serving first in the final set, but Verdasco competed honorably in that remarkable chapter.
Serving at 2-3, Verdasco was in a serious bind. Twice in that critical game, the 25-year-old Spanish lefty fought off break points, one with a bold ace down the T, another with a succession of penetrating ground strokes that left Murray unable to recover. Verdasco held on for 3-3, broke Murray in the following game, and never looked back. He then upended 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four hard fought sets to earn his duel of southpaws with Nadal.
Verdasco had only once taken a set off Nadal in six previous meetings, but the world No. 1 realized he was taking on a player who had moved to an entirely new and higher level. That was apparent from the outset of this crackling encounter. Nadal had two break points with Verdasco serving at 5-5 in the opening set, but was unable to convert. In the first set tie-break, Nadal was ahead 3-1 but his unwavering opponent collected six of the next eight points to seal the set. Nadal struck back ferociously to take the second and was twice up a break in the third, building leads of 2-0 and 4-2 as Verdasco seemed to be wilting under the assault.
And yet, the underdog found reserves of energy and bursts of inspiration. He battled back to force a tie-break, but in that sequence his ball control deserted him and Nadal confidently finished off that set with a blazing forehand winner and an ace. At two sets to one, his chances to run out the match seemed excellent. Early in the fourth set, Verdasco looked as if his body might finally betray him, but his serve did not. Both players held to set up another tie-break, and this time the inspired Verdasco could do almost no wrong, blasting winner after glorious winner off his big forehand, sweeping into a fifth set with his bold play under pressure.
All across the fifth set, Nadal was creating opportunities for himself, but Verdasco kept fending him off with unbridled yet controlled aggression. Verdasco saved two set points at 0-1 in that fifth set, wiped away another at 2-3, and cast aside two more at 3-4. Nadal was uncommonly tight on the big points, too cautious numerous times, burdened by wanting so badly to win a match of this consequence against a player he was expected to beat. At 4-4, Nadal fell behind 0-30 and was six points from a bruising defeat. Verdasco pulled a forehand wide on the next point, missed a routine forehand return at 15-30, and that was all the leeway Nadal needed.
Nadal held on gamely for 5-4 with a high forehand volley winner and a clean winner off the forehand. In the tenth game, Verdasco double faulted to fall behind 0-40, triple match point. He rallied to 30-40, but then double faulted again. Nadal— despite being far below his best— had found a way to survive a spirited performance from a worthy rival. That set up his final round appointment with Federer, who had wandered into dangerous territory himself in a fourth round collision with Tomas Berdych, dropping the first two sets of that clash before recouping for a five set triumph.
Thereafter, Federer settled into a comfort zone, dismantling Juan Martin Del Potro 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 in the quarters, and taking apart an overzealous Andy Roddick 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals. Federer did not lose his serve in either match. Roddick had worn down Djokovic on a stifling day in the heat after losing the first set in a tie-break, as Djokovic surrendered when he was down a break in the fourth. But Roddick— the man who held serve more successfully than anyone else in the men’s game across 2008— let himself down badly by failing to reach a tie-break in the second and third sets. In the crunch, his serve was found wanting.
So Nadal and Federer squared off for the 19th time in their illustrious rivalry. It was a match of wildly fluctuating fortunes, featuring many more service breaks than is customary in this series between the Swiss maestro and the Spanish gladiator. Nadal broke Federer no fewer than 7 times in five sets, but Federer broke the Spaniard six times. The number of breaks made for a particularly compelling encounter, and that pattern of unpredictability was apparent from the outset.
In the opening set, Nadal broke his primary rival in the opening game, lost his delivery twice to trail 4-2, and then struck back boldly to capture five of six games to seal the set by breaking two more times. In the second set, Nadal broke for 3-2 and seemed in command, but an unwavering Federer secured four games in a row to reach one set all.
The third set through the early stages of the fourth was when both men played their highest quality tennis of the match. Neither player broke serve in the third, but Nadal faced some trying moments late in the set. At 4-4, he was down 0-40 but burst out of that corner with some stupendous shot making and fine strategic serving. At 5-5, he was behind 15-40 and faced the music again. Now it was Federer’s turn to escape, and he did just that by saving a set point at 5-6 with an excellent first serve down the T that Nadal could not keep in play. In the ensuing tie-break, the two competitors were locked at 3-3 when Federer misfired flagrantly on an inside-out forehand off Nadal’s return down the middle.
That mini-break propelled Nadal through the rest of the tie-break. He nailed a forehand crosscourt winner for 5-3, lunged to his right for an excellent backhand volley winner into an open court for 6-3, and then ran out the sequence when Federer double faulted. Nadal was back in command at two sets to one.
In the early stages of the fourth set, the tennis was even more sublime. Nadal made it back from 2-0 to 2-2 and then had five break points in a pivotal fifth game. Had he broken there, he might well have gone on to record a four set victory, but Federer had other notions. He held on bravely with a superb mixture of touch and aggression. That hold— so crucial to the Swiss player’s fortunes— hurt Nadal severely. Federer glided to 5-2 and took the set comfortably 6-3. On to a fifth set they went, with the momentum seemingly on Federer’s side.
But Nadal realized what an advantage he had by serving first in the fifth set. He buckled down immediately. Remarkably, despite his exhausting semifinal with Verdasco, despite four more debilitating sets with Federer, despite everything, Nadal regrouped once more and his staying power was beyond dispute. The 22-year-old summoned all of his resources and his serve was never better than when he needed it most in the last set. He never gave Federer any room for encouragement, winning 16 of 19 points on serve in that fifth set, holding twice at love, once at 15, and once at 30.
Meanwhile, Nadal made only 3 unforced errors in a set lasting 43 points. Conversely, Federer lost his range completely, making 14 unprovoked mistakes. Nadal cleverly exposed Federer’s weakness on the high backhand with his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt. In turn, Federer lost confidence in his forehand and his footwork was not up to par. My view is that Federer was worn down by all the running he did across the first four sets.
The truth is that Nadal worked Federer inordinately hard, making him chase down an awful lot of wide balls to the forehand, then forcing the Swiss to scamper back to cover the wide backhand. The combination of Nadal’s penetrating inside-out forehand and his flat two-hander crosscourt did a considerable amount of damage. Federer looked spent in the fifth set and Nadal exploited the situation to the hilt, coming away with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 triumph.
Nadal has now toppled Federer six times in eight meetings at the majors altogether. Strictly in the finals at Grand Slam events, Nadal has been victorious five of seven times. To be sure, he has beaten Federer three times in the finals of Roland Garros on the red clay, and once more in the semifinals of that event. But the fact remains that Nadal has completed a three surface sweep of Federer at the major events over the last year, ruling on the clay in Paris, the grass at Wimbledon, and the hard courts of Australia. Nadal holds a 13-6 career lead over Federer in their overall series. Considering that so many of their duels have been on the biggest occasions, Nadal’s head to head superiority is no small thing.
As I look at the rest of 2009 and envision the three upcoming majors, it is hard to image Nadal not collecting a fifth consecutive French Open crown. I believe Nadal, Federer and Murray all have a serious chance to win Wimbledon, and the same trio— plus possibly Djokovic— will be in strong contention at the U.S. Open. I remain almost certain that Murray will succeed in either London or New York. Federer displayed much grit and fortitude in bouncing back emphatically after a distressing year to capture his fifth straight U.S. Open. He salvaged his season with that triumph.
It could well be even more arduous for Federer to win a major in 2009. Murray has beaten him five of the last six times they had met. Nadal has his number. The likes of Tsonga, Verdasco and a few others will be somewhere in the mix. Nadal has never had this kind of start to a year. He has a huge head start, and will be all the more confident when he heads into the clay court season. Murray is not discouraged after Melbourne, but Federer might well be.
I am looking forward to the rest of 2009 because the men’s game has seldom been more compelling.