Theories as to why Andy Murray, the favourite to win the Australian Open, lost to an opponent who had taken only one set off him in their five previous matches abounded here last night.
Did Fernando Verdasco, who won yesterday's fourth-round encounter 2-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, take advantage of Murray's recent illness, the world No 4 having been on medication for a sore throat and thick head since last Thursday? Had Murray trained too hard in the off season? Had he peaked too soon by winning in Abu Dhabi and Doha?
Had Verdasco, a graduate of the hit-and-hope school, enjoyed a once-in-a-season spell of brilliance? Had the weight of expectation weighed too heavily on Murray's shoulders? Had he been put off by his former coach, Brad Gilbert, commentating for radio from the side of the court?
Murray refused to go along with any explanation other than the simple one. "Sometimes you have to suck it up and admit he was too good," Murray said, insisting that his physical state had not affected the result. "Sometimes at this level, it comes down to a few points. We played over 250 points and it came down to one or two. He served huge on the big points and I couldn't do anything about it."
If praising the world No 15 was to Murray's credit, you sensed that it fell short of the whole story. The Scot's pallid complexion suggested that he felt worse than he was letting on, while his negative body language, grimaces and sometimes sluggish movement can only have boosted Verdasco's confidence.
There are times, you suspect, when Murray can be too brilliant for his own good. Nine times out of 10 he knows he can win even after a bad patch. When it was pointed out that Roger Federer had recovered from two sets down the previous day, Murray's reply was telling. "I've dug myself out of a few holes, but I didn't feel I was in one until near the end," he said.
Until the sixth game of the final set you sensed that Murray always felt he would win, despite his alarming dips in the second and fourth sets. At 3-2 up in the fifth he made what he hoped would be his winning push. Verdasco, however, had been serving superbly and saved two break points. Murray gave his all and paid for it in the subsequent game, dropping his serve with a series of tired shots and Verdasco served out for victory after three hours and 12 minutes.
While the result was a major disappointment, Murray maintained a healthy sense of perspective. "It's not a disaster," he said. "I'm still playing well. I lost to a good player in a very close match."
Murray has been the game's most consistent player since Wimbledon and one defeat to an opponent who had lost fewer games (12) in his first three matches here than any player at the Australian Open in the professional era should not detract from his achievements.
"You can't always play your best and sometimes guys play too well," he said. "I'm disappointed to lose, but I'm definitely not shocked. I know how well he can play. If I had played terribly and felt I didn't do myself justice, I would have been shocked.
"Last year I lost in the first round. Physically, I am better off than I was. Hopefully, I can get better and learn from what he did better than me."
Had being the pre-tournament favourite affected him? "It didn't make a whole lot of difference to the way that I played in my matches. I felt comfortable from the start. I don't know if I'll be the favourite for a Slam in the next year, or so, after today, but it doesn't bother me."
This was Murray's 13th appearance in a Grand Slam tournament and he has already made one final; Federer won his first Grand Slam title at the 17th attempt, having never previously gone beyond the quarter-finals. The Australian Open, moreover, thanks to its place in the calendar, is never the most reliable form guide. In the last 10 years seven players – Thomas Enqvist, Arnaud Clement, Thomas Johansson, Rainer Schuttler, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – have reached the final but have never matched that performance at another Grand Slam tournament.
Had Murray beaten Verdasco, the top eight seeds would have gone through to the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. Nadal and Tsonga enjoyed straight-sets victories over Gonzalez and James Blake respectively, while Gilles Simon went through after Gael Monfils quit with a wrist injury when trailing 6-4, 2-6, 6-1.
There were also two retirements in the women's competition, with Victoria Azarenka the day's unluckiest player. Leading Serena Williams 6-3, 2-4, the No 13 seed had to be helped off court, having gone down with a sickness bug overnight. Zheng Jie retired when trailing Svetlana Kuznetsova4-1 after damaging a wrist in a fall.
Murray's exit: Story of the match
*first set (Murray won 6-2)
Murray had break points against him in three of his four service games, but broke Verdasco at 1-1 and 4-2 to win the set in 35 minutes
*second set (Verdasco won 6-1)
Verdasco won the first four games as Murray started to look sluggish and ill at ease, even after breaking back for 4-1
*third set (Murray won 6-1)
Murray upped the pace and established a 3-0 lead before breaking serve for a second time at 4-1 and then serving out for the set
*fourth set (Verdasco won 6-3)
Verdasco found a great rhythm on his serve, putting 93 per cent of his first serves in court, and made the only break in the second game
*fifth set (Verdasco won 6-4)
Verdasco won the pivotal sixth game, featuring six deuces and two break points, and immediately broke a weary-looking Murray before serving out for the matchReuse content