Sporting Life

In a fifth set, Nadal faces a furious flurry of forehands

The fifth set is eight games, four breaks, 44 minutes, immeasurable madness. The fifth set is the match's most stirring chapter for it is at once deeply sad and yet utterly uplifting. An overachiever with 14 Grand Slam titles will seem stripped of all assurance and an underachiever who never won even one will play with a bullfighter's bravado. Sometimes the best sport makes no sense.

Fifth sets favour better players, their games are more rugged, their decision-making more reliable. Rafael Nadal is 17-6 in five-setters, Fernando Verdasco is 21-18. Unsurprisingly, the inevitable starts to occur yesterday: Nadal is up 2-0 in the fifth set, with a chance to make it 3-0, and of course he will win. But this Nadal is not that old Rafa: He's the champion with amnesia who's temporarily forgotten how to win.

Last year for the first time Nadal lost 20 matches, which is more losses in a single year than he has ever had in his life on the tour. You know a sporting life has altered when the "firsts" that you now make are unflattering. It eats away at auras and chews on halos. You're suddenly not as convinced you're going to win and everyone else is more convinced they can. On just this, matches and history hinge.

The fifth set inhibits players, its tension freezes shoulders and stiffens legs, but not Verdasco. It's as if abandon is his best tactic. Or his only one left. He plays what we often talk about yet rarely see: nothing-to-lose tennis. You have to take risks to win but this is akin to juggling with broken bottles. It is beyond inspired, it is brilliant lunacy. "I was just closing my eyes, everything went in." Just like that.

Verdasco doesn't hit forehands in the fifth set, he hammers, whips, bludgeons, murders, smokes them. Like he's carrying a quiver full of Joe Frazier left hooks. He hit forehands on the run, cross-court, down the line, to Nadal's feet and out of reach. He hit forehands while off his feet which had everyone on their feet.

The fifth set inhibits players, its tension freezes shoulders and stiffens legs, but not Verdasco. It's as if abandon is his best tactic. Or his only one left. He plays what we often talk about yet rarely see: nothing-to-lose tennis. You have to take risks to win but this is akin to juggling with broken bottles. It is beyond inspired, it is brilliant lunacy.

He hit a forehand which Nadal couldn't control to break to 4-2, he hit two incendiary forehands to hold to 5-2, he hit a slapped forehand return for a crisp winner on match point. For six straight games he opened his shoulders and a violent genius flowed.

Politely Nadal said: "He had a lot of success hitting all the balls full power in the fifth." He's not one for excuses. After their five hours and 14 minutes in Melbourne in 2009 he knows what Verdasco could do and yet he also knows what he could do to Verdasco: they'd played 16 times, he'd won 14. He should have won again, he'll tell himself, he was two sets to one ahead, he was a break ahead in the fifth. Yet he left the court first and quietly. The road back to mortality from invincibility is sport's hardest trek.

Today first drafts of Nadal's tennis epitaph will be prematurely circulated. Elsewhere it might be said that Verdasco looks too good to be No. 45 but maybe he's No. 45 because you can't do this all the time. It's tightrope walking in a high breeze. It's the kind of low-percentage game which coaches don't preach but fans swoon over. Most times if you swing so mightily hard, so often, it won't work, but every now and then it suddenly and brilliantly does. As if to prove that it's not impossible, only improbable.

It wasn't the best of days for Nadal but, worse, he caught Verdasco on his day. It doesn't come very often but when it does, like in the fifth set, it lights up tennis briefly. Maybe if Verdasco looked up into the Melbourne sky last night he might have seen a beautiful blue moon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'In a fifth set, a furious flurry of nothing-to-lose forehands'. Print Edition | Subscribe