- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

MELBOURNE, Australia | After five arduous hours, Rafael Nadal couldn’t hold back the tears when he pulled within a point of making the Australian Open final.

Yet he managed to compose himself and held off Fernando Verdasco in five sets. Verdasco double-faulted after saving two match points, and Nadal won 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4 in the longest match in the tournament’s history. Nadal flopped on his back, exhausted and elated, after a match few expected to go long.

The five-hour, 14-minute semifinal between the Spanish left-handers started at dusk Friday and ended at 1:07 a.m. Saturday.

The top-ranked Nadal advanced to another final against Roger Federer, who is bidding to equal Pete Sampras’ record 14 Grand Slam singles titles.

“Today was, yeah, one of these matches you going to remember long time, no?” Nadal said. “Well, the emotion was big.”

Especially when the score got to love-40 in the last game.

“I start to cry. … Too much tension,” he said.

Nadal can expect more tension Sunday when he meets Federer for the seventh time to decide a Grand Slam. Nadal has a 4-2 edge highlighted by last year’s 4:48, five-set win at Wimbledon.

That was a breakthrough for Nadal, who had been all-conquering on clay since winning his first major at Roland Garros in 2005 but lost two Wimbledon finals to Federer. He later won the Olympic gold medal and ended Federer’s record string of 237 weeks at No. 1.

The 22-year-old Spaniard couldn’t compare the drama of his win over Verdasco with that of ending Federer’s five-year reign on grass.

“The final of Wimbledon was the final of Wimbledon,” he said, adding that victory was a “little bit more emotional.”

Not that he was discounting the struggle against 14th-seeded Verdasco, who had never been beyond the fourth round at a major.

The 25-year-old Verdasco beat No. 4 Andy Murray - tennis’ hottest player entering the tournament - in the fourth round and 2008 runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals.

“Verdasco was playing unbelievable,” Nadal said. “I think I was very good mentally all the time, believing in the victory.”

Nadal said Verdasco was “very tough” and finds it “amazing” to be in the final after such a match.

The scorching heat of the past three days dropped from a high of 113 degrees to under 86 before this semifinal at Rod Laver Arena.

With the arena’s namesake in the crowd, Nadal was clearly tested by Verdasco, who ripped 95 winners. But he remained steadfast, averaging just five unforced errors a set.

For his part, Verdasco thought he might have done his friend a disservice: Nadal was pushed to five sets; Federer needed only straight sets to dispatch Andy Roddick in his semifinal but also got an extra day to rest.

“Really a pity for Rafa for sure that he won the match, that he played that long for the final,” said Verdasco, who won the deciding match in Spain’s Davis Cup triumph at Argentina last November.

“I want him to be 100 percent to play that final and to try to win,” he added. “He’s a big friend. I wish him the best of luck.”

Serena Williams warmed up for Saturday night’s women’s final against Dinara Safina by combining with sister Venus to win the doubles title. They beat Slovakia’s Daniela Hantuchova and Japan’s Ai Sugiyama 6-3, 6-3 under the roof at Melbourne Park.

It was the eighth Grand Slam doubles title and third in Australia for the Williams sisters, who also won the doubles gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

Serena is aiming for her 10th singles major and to continue a sequence that includes an Australian title in every odd-numbered year since 2003. Also on the line is the No. 1 ranking, something Serena has already held. Safina has never won a major, coming closest with last year’s French Open final loss to Ana Ivanovic.

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