Fernando Verdasco stunned Rafael Nadal 7-6(6) 4-6 3-6 7-6(4) 6-2 on Tuesday at Rod Laver Arena with one of the greatest displays of power tennis our sport has ever seen.
Every shot was an opportunity for Verdasco to attempt a winner, and he notched up an unfathomable 90 of them, including 41 off his forehand wing, to move through to the second round of Australian Open 2016.
Nadal did not play poorly. He simply had his racquet taken out of his hands as Verdasco hit 20 aces, 10 return winners, and 57 groundstroke winners in an awesome display of attack first and ask questions later.
To go along with the 90 winners, Verdasco forced 54 errors from Nadal, specifically targeting Nadal’s forehand wide in the ad court. Overall Nadal committed 37 forehand forced errors, unable to deal with the raw power that continually rained down on him.
The loss condemned Nadal to his earliest Australian Open exit in 11 attempts, and is only the second opening-round loss in his Grand Slam career.
Nadal led 30-0 serving at 2-5 in the final set, but four consecutive Verdasco winners, including two directly off the return of serve, ended the match, which lasted four hours and 41 minutes.
When they played their epic five-set semifinal in Melbourne in 2009, Nadal won one more point than Verdasco – 193 to 192. This time, Verdasco managed to win two more than his Spanish rival – 182 to 180.
Points were typically very short, with 74 per cent of rallies in the 0-4 shot range, 18 per cent in the 5-8 range and only eight per cent lasting more than nine shots.
“I just started hitting winners, I don’t know how,” a jubilant Verdasco said afterwards.
“I was just closing the eyes and everything was going in.”
Verdasco advances to play Dudi Sela of Israel, a 6-1 6-3 2-6 6-2 winner over German Benjamin Becker earlier on Tuesday.
“I will keep it up and try playing like this,” Verdasco said.
“Now I focus on the second round. Let’s go.”
Nadal actually led a break in the fifth set, breaking Verdasco in the opening game when Verdasco’s flashy forehand down the line found the net instead of the court.
It felt like Nadal had finally wrestled control of the match, with Verdasco’s strength and spirit surely waning.
Nadal surged to a 2-0 lead in the fifth set, making a similar forehand down the line for a winner that Verdasco had missed in the previous game to be broken.
Nadal had a break point in the following game with Verdasco serving at 30-40 that surely would have put Verdasco away for good.
In hindsight, it was by far and away the most important point of the 362 they played.
Hanging on by a thread, Verdasco attacked like a man possessed, crushing three consecutive aces to Nadal’s backhand wing – all of them painting the line.
That made four aces in the game, including one on the opening point that also went to the backhand.
Verdasco broke back to level at 2-2 in the following game, hitting two return winners, and held for a 3-2 lead with another ace to the Nadal backhand to clinch the game.
Verdasco would hit seven aces in the fifth set, and every single one was directed at Nadal’s backhand side.
Overall, Verdasco mixed his first serve locations well, keeping Nadal guessing as to what was coming next. In the deuce court, Verdasco directed 27 first serves down the T and 25 out wide.
In the ad court, Verdasco hit 39 serves wide to Nadal’s forehand, and 23 down the T.
A key metric for Verdasco was making sure he got his first serve in play on break points. Nadal won 6/16 break points, with Verdasco importantly making 13 first serves.
Nadal also performed very extremely well in this area, as Verdasco converted 5/15 break points. Nadal missed his first serve on the very first break point he faced, at 4-4, 0-40, in the opening set, then was a perfect 14/14 with first serves on break points for the rest of the match.
In each of the first four sets, Nadal won the greater amount of the critical 0-4 shot rally length, including being +10 (36 to 26) in the fourth set. But in the fifth set, Verdasco ended up +6 (26 to 20), and won all other rally lengths seven to two.
Verdasco surely pulled off one of the toughest assignments in tennis – to win six straight games against Nadal in a fifth set of a Grand Slam.
From 0-2 down in the deciding set, Verdasco won 69 per cent (27/39) of all points in the last six games.
This time, offense soundly defeated defense.
It was an all-or-nothing strategy for Verdasco that made strategic sense against one of the best defensive players of all time. He was not going to out-rally Nadal. He simply out-hit him.
Craig O'Shannessy is the lead strategy analyst for the ATP Tour, and the 2015 USPTA Tour Coach of the Year.