Seven years ago, a relatively unknown Fernando Verdasco stood against a prime Rafael Nadal in the semi-final of the 2009 Australian open. It's feels like yesterday that Nadal came out in his a black-blue-white tee and fluorescent green bandana, and Verdasco in a dirty green tee with a dirty yellow pattern across it.
For the next five hours and 14 minutes, everyone who ever cared about tennis was treated to, arguably, one of the greatest tennis matches ever played. It was as if Nadal was playing against a mirror — a Spaniard southpaw, heavy on topspin and quick on his feet. Verdasco returned everything, he was everywhere. But Nadal at his prime could bring down gods and eventually nerves got the better of Verdasco. Nadal came out victorious 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, and perspired, perhaps, like he never had before.
He went on to win the Australian Open against Roger Federer. It was Nadal's first hard-court Grand Slam win and he had now defeated Federer in Slams on clay, grass and synthetic. Federer cried at the post-match ceremony.
So, it was a bit of a trip down memory lane when we saw Nadal take on Verdasco in the first round of the 2016 Australian Open. It was a treat of a match once again, a 4 hour 41 minute five-setter. Verdasco came out smiling this time, 7-6,4-6,3-6,7-6,6-2. Nadal didn't cry.
Verdasco is world number 45 right now in ATP rankings, and hence is unseeded at the Australian Open. He hasn't been making headlines in a while, but it is very safe to say he is not a typical first-round opponent, the ones who are just there to block the view to the next round for the big ones. So while we can call Nadal's first round exit an upset, it is fair to say he caught a tough break going up against Verdasco in the first round.
And it's not like he was bad. Nadal bounced back after losing the first set in a tiebreaker, but Verdasco operated at the highest altitudes of power-tennis that Nadal himself has perfected over the years. Nadal had better stats than Verdasco too; his first serve went in more - 64% compared to Verdsasco's 61%, he won more points of his second serve - 50% in comparison to 45%, and made way fewer unforced errors - 38 to Verdasco's mind-boggling 91.
It was Verdasco's astounding 90 winners compared to Nadal's 37, that proved decisive, especially the 46 forehand winners - each of them gems. Verdasco simply used his near-perfect forehand to wriggle the match out of Nadal's hands.
Verdasco took it and just ran with it. “I was just closing the eyes and everything was going in,” he said after the match.
Nadal has become half the player he was since injuries found him, inevitably. If you play for a decade like you're going to destroy the court, the court will destroy you back. Knee, ankle, wrist, he's had them everywhere.
The signs began on the grass. In Wimbledon 2012, he was stunned by Lukas Rosol (then world no 100) in the second round, in 2013 it was Steve Darcis (135th) in the first round, 2014 it was then world no 144 Nick Kyrgios who got better of Nadal (then world no 1), and finally in 2015 he lost to a qualifier, Dustin Brown, in the second round. A broken Nadal even fell at the 2015 French Open, his backyard, when Djokovic became only the second man to beat him in Paris. Robin Soderling finally had the company he wanted.
Nadal had a dry 2015, ending his decade-long streak of winning at least one major a year. Many then said that Nadal is done. That he's not coming back. Many are saying that now. But after a long struggle with injuries and a disastrous year, Nadal showed signs of life towards the end of 2015 season, reaching the China Open final where he lost to Djokovic. He then made it to the semi-finals of Shanghai, and also set up a finals clash with Federer in the Swiss Indoors, where the Swiss won. The Spaniard then reached the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals, where he again lost to Djokovic.
"The match is a tough loss for me, especially because it's not like last year when I arrived here playing bad and feeling myself not ready for it," Nadal said after the loss in Melbourne. "This year was a completely different story. I have been playing and practising great and working so much."
He made strong start to 2016 winning the Mubadala Championship, an exhibition tournament but no easy task. Nadal then reached the final of the season opener at Qatar where Djokovic got the better of him again.
Past few months post-US Open, Nadal has shown that he is not done. That he hasn't breathed his last on a tennis court.
"You know it's tough when you work so much and arrive at a very important event and you're going out too early. It's tough, but at the same time, I know I did everything that I can to be ready for it. Was not my day. Let's keep going. That's the only thing," Nadal added.
The Australian Open upset was just that, an upset. Many would say that it's an upset one too many for Nadal. But for a man, who has pushed every bone, stretched every muscle, strained every ligament and taken the human anatomy to its limit and beyond, there's nothing like 'one too many'. We might not be able see a Nadal that we saw around 2008, when he left courts and opponents bruised. But we now have a chance to see a Nadal, having bruised himself, come back strong.
The 2016 season has just started, and Nadal is nowhere near his end.