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If Roger Federer's progress to the final has shown us a magical exhibition of tennis, Rafael Nadal who was never tested en route, all but met his nemesis in compatriot Fernando Verdasco. At the end of the marathon it was but one point that separated victory from defeat. 193 points to Nadal, 192 to Verdasco.
The match which for most of the duration was a neck-to-neck affair, statistically too provided many firsts - making it not just a viewers delight but a statisti cians too. Some of the firsts - the 1st all Spanish semi final in Australian Open history, the longest match ever at the Australian Open, and the win resulted in Rafael Nadal's first ever Australian Open final.
The time it took for Nadal to squeeze out Verdasco, 5 hours and 14 minutes, is just the tip of the iceberg - a match which went to five sets, three of which were decided by tie-breaks speaks volumes for the quality of tennis that was on display. Rafa's skill that has earned him the No. 1 spot was never in doubt, but what about his opponent? - left hander, good friend, fellow Spaniard - the similarities do not end here. He shared the grit, the passion, the hunger that Nadal has always shown, and injected an element of surprise, nudged on by Lady Luck.
In the 1st set, he was more than a match for his more illustrious amigo - forced a tie-break and claimed the set with a winning volley, which was preceded by a kiss the net backhand shot which spun high into the air for what seemed like forever and while the astonished spectators looked on, dropped just over the net on Nadal's side.
In the 2nd set games went with serve, but while Verdasco won all of his with ease, Nadal had to work really hard to hold his. However in the 8th game, it was the familiar ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“wear them down' Nadal who made Verdasco defend four break points. As the score moved on to 4-5 with Verdasco serving, the ball went back and forth from the back of the court producing tennis of the highest quality - two hard hitting men, firing on all cylinders - till Nadal hit a ferocious winner down the line. A point later Nadal had pocketed the set from straight under Verdasco's nose.
Nadal broke Verdasco to go 2-0 up in the third, and many a tennis fan would have predicted that this was the beginning of the end for the debutant semi-finalist. Not so, he rose to the challenge hitting winner after winner to break back, not once, but twice! But it was Nadal who had the last laugh, playing an impeccable tiebreaker to go up two sets to one.
The 4th set saw Verdasco receive some medical attention for what appeared to be calf-trouble. The match was now well into its 4th hour, however Verdasco seemed to have recovered sufficiently to push it into a tie-break, in which he annihilated the World No. 1
The final set provided more thrills to the packed stadium, and although it was well past the pumpkin hour, nobody dared move from their seats. In all fairness Nadal had the better of the exchanges in what was becoming a war of attrition. Nadal looked impervious on his own serve, dropping just 3 points in 5 service games. Verdasco meanwhile was struggling, his first serve percentage which had been in the 70s in the first four sets was loitering at 56% in the decider, and Nadal was taking full toll.
It all came to a head with Verdasco serving at 4-5 down, an identical position as the 2nd set. Two double faults in the final game, including one at match point down brought a rather anti-climatic end to a match of exceptionally high standards. Verdasco had hit an unimaginable 95 winners to Nadal's 52 yet it wasn't enough. In 5 hours and 5 sets of tennis, Nadal had made only 25 unforced errors, 5 an hour, 5 a set!
Sunday's final will see the dream match-up - Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on opposite sides of a tennis court, for the first time since that epic of a Wimbledon final, which Nadal won 9-7 in the 5th.
Photograph Copyright: Tidalist