Australian Open: Fernando's Redemption, Lleyton's Love, Baker's Return and Tsonga's Ghost

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2016 Australian Open - Day 2 : News Photo

MELBOURNE—Tonight, Fernando Verdasco – an aging hunk on fire – got sweet payback for one of the most painful defeats of the the 21st century, his epic all-lefty, all-Spanish 5:14 semifinal marathon loss to Rafa Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open, the second-longest match in tournament history.

Verdasco, 32 years old and ranked No. 45, has had a fine career. But, truth be told, he has suffered a sorry fate. He was famous for a Grand Slam defeat, a match he lost when he double-faulted. He’s watched videos of his 2009 debacle. His 7-6(6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 win today was 35 minutes shorter than his loss seven years ago. Still, it was one of the sweeter payback wins in tennis history.

Blasting forehands and serving big, Verdasco managed to capture the first set, but faltered and lost the next two, only to rally late in the fourth. But he was immediately broken in the fifth set. Surely he would lose for the 15th time in his 17 meetings with the No. 5 Rafa, who was going for his 15th Slam. Certainly, the great Rafa would prevail. The Aussie Open broadcaster noted that there’s “that look on Nadal’s face [which says] ‘This is my match’ – we’ve all seen this before.”

Verdasco was undaunted. He and Rafa are friends who often play doubles together. Before the Australian Open draw, they were texting about which tournaments they would play. But this evening Fernando was not so friendly. Apparently he was not distracted by an online article which points to unusual betting patterns in the first sets of several of his matches over the past year. And never mind that he had not gotten beyond the third round in his last six Slams, or that Nadal had never lost before the third round in Melbourne.

Afterward Verdasco claimed with an almost radiant smile that “some inspiration” made him play so well. Like so many of Nadal’s recent foes, he began to hit out and zone: Lukas Rosol, Nick Kyrgios and Dustin Brown at Wimbledon; or Tomas Berdych at last year’s Aussie Open; or Fabio Fognini at the 2015 US Open.

But like no one else, Verdasco all but obsessed about his 2009 loss to Nadal. People continually reminded him. He had watched the match at least ten times. Still, he never thought he would have another opportunity to play Rafa in a five-set match. Today, he did. He confided that early in the fifth set “for a second [I was] thinking about that [2009] semifinals. I was like, ‘Please, I don’t want to lose, you know, with a double-fault at 5-4, 30-40.'”

He didn’t. Rather at 7:02 p.m., after 4:41 of play, he blasted yet another forehand winner to secure his win. Redemption was his.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: After his loss, Nadal said, “The game is changing a little bit [since everyone is now hitting out]. It has become a little bit more crazy.”

LLEYTON HEWITT HEADLINE OF THE DAY: “Give Us Hope,” from the front page of Melbourne’s Herald Sun.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Nadal’s gorgeous hair is thinning (and he hasn’t reached a Slam final in his last seven tries).

LLEYTON LINGERS: Wearing a bright Aussie flag-type shirt, Down Under icon Lleyton Hewitt beat his countryman and pupil James Duckworth 7-6. 6-2, 6-4 to win the opening-round match of his final tournament. He will next play another great, relatively diminutive veteran grinder – Spain’s David Ferrer. Hewitt told an adoring crowd, “This is what I will miss the most, the adrenaline rush.” He added that he was glad that his young kids would now have memories of “dad being an old man and limping out on the tennis court.” Still a fierce competitor, Hewitt said winning his first match was fine, but he wanted to win six more.

WHAT AN HONOR: The last five Australian Davis Cup captains – Neale Fraser, John Newcombe, John Fitzgerald, Pat Rafter and Wally Masur – were all on hand to watch Lleyton Hewitt.

HALEP WALLOPED: No. 2 seed Simona Halep, arguably the best active WTA player to have never won a Slam, suffered a shock 6-4, 6-3 loss to Chinese qualifier Shuai Zhang. Incredibly, Zhang, 26 years-old and just ranked No. 133, had lost all 14 of her previous Grand Slam matches. The seeds in the woman’s draw are dropping fast.

THE ALMOST BIBLICAL RETURN OF BRIAN BAKER: The Bible reveals the faith and persistence of Job, who overcame one obstacle after another. And this Australian Open reveals the resilience of Brian Baker, the oh-so-persistent and courageous Nashville veteran. Once a fabulous junior prospect, Baker was injured in 2007. For five years he was sidelined. He had five surgeries (hip, elbow, hernia). He returned to the circuit, but then suffered a horrendous knee injury at the 2013 Aussie Open and underwent five more surgeries. Today the heroic veteran again displayed his impressive power tennis while losing to the talented Italian Simone Bolelli 7-6(6), 7-6(3), (7)6-7, 7-6(5). The reflective Baker then said, “Maybe I’m dumb, but I still love the game. You definitely have to learn patience [when you’re sidelined] and you have to listen to your body…You learn to be realistic [and] that tennis is not the most important thing, but is important enough to play as much as you can in the next couple of years.”

HIPPIE MANTRA: For the first time in anyone’s memory, the phrase “Keep on truckin'” was used in a tennis press conference. Rising Brit Jo Konta, who ousted Venus Williams, used the iconic phrase created by Robert Crumb in his celebrated comic. BTW: Toyota offered Crumb $10,000 to use “Keep on truckin'” in an ad campaign, but he said no.

SAY WHAT: FederBet, a nonprofit sport betting watchdog with a very curious name, said it had flagged more than 20 matches to the tennis authorities in the last quarter of 2015, but to no avail.

A RUBIN SANDWICH

• Veteran Benoit Paire said his loss to American teen Noah Rubin was a “catastrophe.” But Noah said his shock win over the No. 17 seed was just “another day at the office.”

• Rubin knows his priorities. After his win, he immediately sent texts to his girlfriend and to his father and coach Eric.

• Asked to comment on all the political talk about “New York values,” the Long Island native said, “If you’ve been to New York I’m sure you’ll understand that we always have some place to go, and even if we don’t [have a place to go] we get there fast…I’ve been raised in a not really sheltered environment and it’s helped my maturity on and off the court and got me to learn.”

• Is Rubin the first New Yorker who does not want to go to Mauai in January? He’s scheduled to play a small tourney there next week, but won’t make it if he keeps on winning.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Nadal’s gorgeous hair is thinning (and he hasn’t reached a Slam final in his last seven tries).

THE GHOSTS OF JO-WILLY TSONGA: When Inside Tennis asked Jo-Willy Tsonga whether he had ever been approached about match-fixing, he responded, “For me match-fixing is like a ghost. I heard about it, but nobody talked to me about it.”

Additional reporting by Tanya Liesegang