Rafael Nadal playing a tennis match against Rafael Nadal will be an intimidating scenario. The skin of a tennis ball will painfully be parted from its body with the heavy topspin, the court will have scratches all over its surface with the mindless sliding (even if it is a hard court), and the endless baseline rallies will result in a high energy explosion.
Pretty much the same happened during the second semifinal of the Australian Open '09. Nadal may not have played against himself, but he played against his compatriot, Fernando Verdasco, who was a Nadal clone on that memorable day.
It was a battle of two countrymen, one an established legend in the game and the other having a golden run in the Open by upsetting the tournament's red-hot favorite Andy Murray in five sets.
That Verdasco, with similar build as Nadal, possessed the same tactics and played with the same fighting spirit as the Mallorcan combined to result in a breath-taking contest. He pushed tennis' fiercest competitor to his absolute limit for five hours and 15 minutes, producing the longest match in the history of Australian Open.
Verdasco had realized right from the beginning that playing his natural game would not work. The high level of the game was evident from the fact that Verdacso continuously played outside of his comfort zone. In the first set, he played aggressively on Nadal's serves, approached the net often, and even played drop shots to keep his opponent guessing.
Nadal, on the other hand, looked a completely different player in "those days." He was hitting the ball harder than he did during the end of the year, his shots were creating better, and sometimes unbelievable, angles, he was hitting the ball a lot deeper and flatter while he was playing closer to the baseline than in the year end tournaments.
Look at the way he constructed the point beautifully at 1:36 by getting the maximum depth on his forehand, closing out with a brilliant volley from below the net. Nadal is hardly a one-dimensional player at his peak.
Verdasco utilized every bit of opportunity that came his way, like the net cord to get two set points for himself, and then closing the net by a down the line forehand complemented with an overhead. His ecstasy after winning the first set was visible—he knew he had Nadal in a fight.
Nadal, meanwhile, carried as if nothing had happened. He continued to mix his points well with clever use of topspin, flat strokes and slice backhands. His slice backhand was much more effective in that tournament. It stayed close to the net, spun a lot, and kept really low which extracted the best out of Verdasco.
But the best was yet to come. The point of the match was played at 3:38 in this clip when Verdasco pushed Nadal to every corner of the court and returned a Nadal's slice with his own under spin which kept ridiculously low and finished the point...almost. Nadal ran to the limit, took the ball inches from the ground, and hit a ridiculous banana swing running forehand that curved from outside the doubles alley into the court.
It was the time when I was quietly sitting on my work computer and jumped up in bewilderment, only to get surprising stares from my colleagues. The match couldn't have got any better.
I was wrong. In the third and the fourth set, the level of the match had gone to another level altogether. Verdasco's wonderful net approaches were thwarted by unimaginable passing shots from Nadal; Nadal's slice backhands were dealt severely by Verdasco and every point was becoming a battle.
At one point during the fourth set (6:35 in the clip), Nadal falls down during the rally, which gives Verdasco enough time to make a good approach and hit a smash right on the baseline. Nadal was right there, converted the smash into a half-volley, and whipped it past the person waiting on the net. Any adjective or superlatives are insufficient to convey these shots.
Verdasco's determination was praiseworthy. Never during the match did his determination falter, and his reaction after winning the fourth-set tiebreaker in a fine fashion (7-1) was there to see. The match was already well beyond the four hour mark at this stage.
As much as Verdasco fought hard, Nadal fought a little harder. He had to win the first and fourth set through ferocious rallies. On the other hand, Nadal was gifted the second set through a routine forehand error from Verdasco, and Nadal hit an ace to win the third.
Similarly, Nadal saved a 0-30 deficit in the fifth set through two courageous winners, while Verdasco choked in the final game of the match with a double fault at 0-40. Nadal played the important points a little better than Verdasco and that was the difference in the end. Only a slight difference, yet huge.
The double fault, however, did not deter the quality of the match. They had already played an epic, and Nadal was already in tears by then.
If the shot-making was one of the best we may have witnessed in this year, the statistics complemented them perfectly.
There were 32 aces compared to only seven double faults, 147 winners against 101 unforced errors, and more than 70 percent of first serves were in. Fittingly, only that single double fault by Verdacso on the match point separated the two gladiators. They were even at 192 points each before the final point was played.
Can it get any better?