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DateLine Wednesday, 4 February 2009

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‘Big Two’ back on top Down Under

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer served up a classic final to reassert their dominance of men’s tennis at an Australian Open hit by record heat and some monster late nights.

Pre-tournament build-up had been dominated by talk of the ‘Big Four’ but the world numbers one and two were the last men standing and provided a fitting climax with a title match for the ages. Nadal made a miraculous recovery from his record semi less than two days earlier to floor Federer in five gripping sets and stall his bid to equal Pete Sampras’s Grand Slams record.

The defeat, after four hours and 23 minutes and in front of Federer’s idol Rod Laver, reduced the three-time champion to tears and he struggled to address the crowd. The story was compelling and returned modern tennis’s greatest rivalry to the fore with the world three and four — defending champion Novak Djokovic and Britain’s Andy Murray — temporarily forgotten.

The tournament had been expected to herald a shake-up in the top order and bookmakers caused a stir when they tipped Murray as favourite.

“Murray’s the favourite? Good for him, but it doesn’t help him a lot,” snorted Federer. Murray said he was mystified by the comments but appeared untroubled as he sailed through the early rounds, raising hopes of a first British Slam title since 1936. However, the Scot ran into surprise package Fernando Verdasco, who has a playboy reputation but has hit the form of his life after sealing November’s Davis Cup final for Spain.

Verdasco, aided by a geometric serve and massive forehand, twice came from behind to shock Murray in five sets and dash his country’s hopes before the quarter-finals. The upset of the tournament reduced the Big Four to the Big Three, although Djokovic had to stay up until 2:26 am before subduing 2006 finalist Marcos Baghdatis.

But the late night and a once-in-a-century heatwave took their toll on the Serb as he retired, looking pale and distressed, during his quarter-final with Andy Roddick. It was a tame end to Djokovic’s first Grand Slam title defence, and reinforced doubts over his durability after a series of similar incidents. Meanwhile Federer fired a warning with a dominant win over long-time rival Marat Safin but had to come from two sets down against Tomas Berdych.

Federer was irresistible in the quarter and semi-finals, handing Juan Martin del Potro a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 pounding and stopping Roddick’s impressive run in its tracks.

Nadal was also in ominous form and stormed into the semi-finals without dropping a set, making light of the in-form Tommy Haas and Fernando Gonzalez.

But the top seed had to dig deep into his reserves of tenacity and pluck in the titanic five-setter with Verdasco, who had also toppled 2008 runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

The pulsating all-Spanish showdown clocked in at a tournament record five hours and 14 minutes and had Nadal sobbing at the tension as he took the final point at 1:07 am.

MELBOURNE, AFP

 

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