The longest match ever at the Australian Open ended, appropriately enough, with both men on the floor of Rod Laver Arena here last night. As Rafael Nadal fell on his back in celebration, Fernando Verdasco slumped to his knees in despair after serving a double fault while attempting to save his third match point after five hours and 14 minutes. A contest to bear comparison with some of the finest in history ended at 1.10am with Nadal winning 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4.
An extraordinary display of stroke-making and athleticism provided wonderful entertainment for the crowd, but the happiest spectator must have been Roger Federer, who had won his semi-final in straight sets 24 hours earlier. Nadal is the strong man of tennis, but can he recover in time to beat the game's greatest fast-court player, who will be aiming to equal Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam titles?
Verdasco has been the revelation of the tournament and his performances against Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have put Andy Murray's defeat to the world No 15 in a new light. The Scot had been ill before their fourth-round encounter but still took it to five sets.
Until he played a key role in Spain's Davis Cup triumph last month 25-year-old Verdasco was regarded as an inconsistent hit-and-hope player. However, the victory over Argentina did wonders for his confidence and a winter camp working with Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi's former trainer, has transformed his fitness.
Nadal must have felt he was looking into a mirror as his fellow Spanish left-hander chased down balls and smashed 95 winners. They had won 192 points each until Verdasco served his second double fault of the final game, having made only two in the previous five hours. Nevertheless the most telling statistic was the unforced error count: Verdasco 76, Nadal 25.
A desperately tight first set had turned on a stroke of luck. Nadal was serving at 4-5 in the tie-break when a Verdasco shot, which was going wide, struck the top of the net, toppled over and landed just inside the court. Verdasco finished off the set with a smash.
The first break of serve came in the last game of the second set. Nadal set it up with a superb running forehand down the line and completed it when Verdasco hit a forehand long. The third set featured four breaks but once again it went to a tie-break, which Nadal dominated to win 7-2.
Normal service was resumed in the fourth set as neither player had so much as a break point. Verdasco played a sensational tie-break, winning it 7-1 with a series of huge forehands, but in the deciding set he repeatedly had to dig himself out of trouble on his serve. Nadal is the ultimate competitor but said that he felt so much emotion that there were tears in his eyes when he went 40-0 up in the final game.
This tournament began with talk of Murray replacing Novak Djokovic as the men's champion, but it will now end with a shoot-out between two more familiar gun-slingers. At 22 and 27 Nadal and Federer are hardly preparing for life on the veterans' tour, but they have filled the top two ranking places for three and a half years and their rivalry has lit up the game.
Nadal, four times a Grand Slam champion on clay and once on grass, will be chasing his first major title on hard courts but will derive confidence from his 12 wins in 18 meetings with Federer, including all four last year. Their most recent meeting was their epic Wimbledon final, which Nadal won in four hours and 48 minutes. The Spaniard will be hoping tomorrow's contest is shorter.