- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

MELBOURNE, Australia – Top-ranked Rafael Nadal outlasted fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4 Friday to reach the Australian Open final after the longest match in the tournament’s history.

Nadal will attempt to keep second-ranked Roger Federer from tying Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major titles on Sunday.

The fans were riveted as the left-handed Davis Cup teammates went at each other for 5 hours and 14 minutes. After all that, having saved two match points, 14th-seeded Verdasco served a double-fault to give Nadal the victory.

“It was very tough to play aggressive against a player like Fernando,” Nadal said. “He played unbelievable. Only when you’re playing very well can you have these wins.”

There were no arguments, no gamesmanship, just great shots, with the momentum shifting on a handful of key points.

The previous longest match at Melbourne Park came in 1991, when Boris Becker needed 5 hours and 11 minutes to beat Italian Omar Camporese, with the fifth set going 14-12.

Federer advanced to his 18th Grand Slam final with a straight sets win over Andy Roddick on Thursday.

Nadal said it would be tough to recover for his first Grand Slam final on a hard court.

“Roger has a bit of an advantage over me,” Nadal said. “He’s resting right now. But I want to try my best.”

With the arena’s namesake, Rod Laver – a pretty good leftie in his own right – in the crowd and Spanish flags scattered around, Nadal found his renowned defense tested to the limit as Verdasco ripped 95 winners. But while he bent, he never broke, committing fewer than 10 unforced errors in every demanding set, including just four in the fifth.

The first set included 75 minutes of long rallies, more associated with a match on clay than a hardcourt.

Nadal was serving at 4-3 in the tiebreaker when Verdasco ran off the last four points. The key shot was a backhand that trickled over to give him set point. A sharp volley set up an easy overhead, and the crowd erupted in cheers.

Cool temperatures had come through during the afternoon to ease Melbourne’s hottest three-day stretch on record – daytime temperatures topped 113 degrees – but the constant sprinting from sideline to sideline left both players draping ice packs wrapped in towels around their shoulders during changeovers.

The high quality of the tennis had fans – silent during play – rising to standing ovations for both players for outstanding shots.

Another tiebreaker loomed in the second set with Verdasco serving at 4-5, 40-15. This time it was Nadal, who had been looking a little puzzled and less confident than usual, running off four points in a row.

At deuce, Verdasco hit what appeared to be a volley winner on the 17th shot of a tense rally. The ball was spinning away from Nadal, but he got to it on the dead run, flicking a forehand winner that dropped in the corner to even the match.

Verdasco managed a smile as he watched the replay on the big-screen TV suspended above the court. He sent a forehand long on the next point, and Nadal pumped his fist in celebration.

They swapped four service breaks in the third set, and the second tiebreaker quickly went Nadal’s way, with Verdasco looking increasingly drained.

He called for the trainer to massage his left calf for apparent cramps twice during changeovers early in the fourth set and was clearly favoring it. But he worked through the pain.

The third tiebreaker was all Verdasco as he raced to a 6-0 lead while forcing a deciding fifth set. It was the first time Nadal had ever lost a Grand Slam tiebreaker while winning only one point.

Verdasco saved five break points in the fifth set before finally faltering. Serving at 4-5 he fell behind 0-40 to set up three match points for Nadal. He saved two with swinging volley winners, then double-faulted – only his fourth of the match. Both players dropped flat on the surface before Nadal got up, jumped over the net and gave his friend a hug.

Earlier in the day, the roof was closed as Serena and Venus Williams teamed for their third doubles title at the Australian Open and eighth Grand Slam title.

They beat Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia and Japan’s Ai Sugiyama 6-3, 6-3, forcing them to dodge a number of stinging shots at the net, particularly from Venus.

“I just wouldn’t want to face them too much. They are ferocious,” Serena said of her sister’s shots. The sisters have faced each other in seven Grand Slam singles finals.

“She’s covering the whole net. At one point today, I literally stood back and she took care of everything.”

It was a good tuneup for Serena’s singles final Saturday, when she will face Russia’s Dinara Safina.

Some top players avoid doubles, worrying that the extra time on court might hamper their singles prospects. While they took a long time off from doubles as both dealt with injuries – resulting in them being seeded only 10th at Melbourne Park – the Williams sisters have gotten back together recently, winning Wimbledon and the Olympic gold medal at Beijing last year.

They dropped only one set in six matches, playing better as the tournament went along. They were chatting and laughing Friday as if they were playing with some friends.

“I think we complement each other on the court because we’re both extremely positive,” Venus said. “We never, ever in our lives have said nasty things to each other. We just don’t operate that way.”

They have won doubles titles at all four Grand Slams, a milestone that Sugiyama had been hoping to achieve by winning here with Hantuchova.

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