Israel’s Dudi Sela succeeded where Rafael Nadal failed when he subdued Spain’s Fernando Verdasco to reach the Australian Open third round on Thursday.
Sela, ranked No. 87 in the world, claimed a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Verdasco (45), who stunned the 14-times Grand Slam champion in a five-set epic in the first round.
The Spaniard looked fatigued from his exploits against Nadal while Sela, cheered on by a flag-waving contingent of fans, struggled with nerves near the end. He ultimately held on to advance to the third round in Melbourne for a second straight year and will be aiming to make it through to the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for just the second time in his career and a first since Wimbledon 2009.
After being knocked out by Nadal in the round of 32 in 2015, Sela will like his chances much more this time around, with his next opponent on Saturday to be Andrey Kuznetsov (74) of Russia.
Kuznetsov beat No. 30 seed Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) on Thursday.
Sela and Kuznetsov have met only once before, with the Israeli winning in five sets in the first round of the US Open in 2013.
“I’m very happy,” said Sela. “Many Jews and Israelis come to watch me and it is a great atmosphere for me and I don’t want to let them down. I’m back in the third round and I’m looking forward to the next match and hopefully I can do better than last year.”
Sela served for the match in the ninth game of the fourth set and was within two points of victory, only to squander the opportunity and allow Verdasco to force a tiebreak. However, the Israeli pulled out the win in the breaker, with Verdasco’s cause not being helped by consecutive double-faults that gifted Sela a 5-2 lead.
“It was very tough,” said Sela about failing to serve out the match.
“Too many things go through your mind. I was 5-3 up, serving at 30-15, had an easy shot and didn’t go for it and then he played well and then you are thinking you are going to lose the match. I had my tactics which was to use my slice and come into the net whenever there is a short ball and I kept going with that and I’m happy that in the end it worked.”
Sela, who hit 27 winners to Verdasco’s 56 but 31 unforced errors to the Spaniard’s 63, added that his goal is to return to the top 50 this year and said he is expecting a difficult match against Kuznetsov.
“I played Kuznetsov in the US Open and it went to a fifth set and was a really long match. He is a very solid player and it will be a very tough match,” said Sela.
Verdasco, a former world No. 7, admitted he was unable to recover from the four-hour, 41-minute marathon against Nadal.
“Playing against someone like Rafa, you have to be extra-focused, and it was a very long match,” Verdasco said. “At the end, physically, you really need to push yourself to the limit. It’s not easy to come back two days after and be the same, after almost five hours against him, the way he pushes you, the way you have to give everything you have to try to beat them. I tried today, but my legs weren’t working that well.”
In other action on Thursday, Lleyton Hewitt bade an emotional farewell under the Australian Open floodlights as David Ferrer snuffed out any chance of fairytale final flourish from the local hero.
After world No. 2 Andy Murray had trampled on home sensibilities by mauling Australian Sam Groth to reach the third round, the Rod Laver Arena crowd settled in to watch former world No. 1 Hewitt try to extend his illustrious singles career for at least another two days.
Eighth-seeded Spaniard Ferrer played the villain to perfection, however, ending the two-time Grand Slam champion’s record 20th campaign at Melbourne Park with an emphatic 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Not that renowned street-fighter Hewitt went with a whimper. He fought to the last even when defeat was inevitable.
“Every time I play out here at Rod Laver Arena, it’s like a second home,” the 34-year-old Adelaide native told the fans after a typically pugnacious display in which he cursed a line judge and mouthed off at the chair umpire.
“Playing for Australia has always been my biggest honor... I feel fortunate to finish here.”
The scandal over alleged match-fixing in tennis that has clouded the tournament’s opening days lingered on though with even Hewitt being quizzed about online speculation that some of his past matches had been implicated.
“Good luck taking me on with it,” he said angrily at the post-match media conference, his three children sitting beside him. “It’s disappointing. Throwing my name out there with it makes the whole thing a farce.”
Hewitt’s sentiments echoed those of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who on Wednesday was moved to deny any wrongdoing after an Italian newspaper report said a 2007 match he lost at the Paris Masters was fixed.
There were no distractions for Murray though as he ruthlessly demolished big-serving Groth 6-0, 6-4, 6-1 as the top seeds sailed through on a day of bright sunshine.
The 2014 champion and fourth seed Stanislas Wawrinka swatted away Czech veteran Radek Stepanek in the twilight, while women’s third seed Garbine Muguruza and two-time champion Victoria Azarenka also charged into the third round.
Nadal’s first-round exit to Verdasco punched a hole in the bottom half of the draw, but four-times finalist Murray was not about to join the fallen Spaniard.
He disarmed Groth, the world’s fastest recorded server, with a clinical returning game, showing his guile by lobbing the 6-ft.-4in. (1.93m.) Australian repeatedly when he lumbered forward in desperation.
Murray has trounced both his first round opponents and Portuguese 32nd seed Joao Sousa is next in the firing line.
Since her back-to-back titles at Melbourne Park in 2012-13, two injury- blighted years have kept Azarenka from claiming a third, but the powerful Belarusian is looking dangerous.
The former world No. 1, seeded 14th here, hammered Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic 6-1, 6-2 at Margaret Court Arena to set up a match with Naomi Osaka and offered some chilling words for the Japanese qualifier.
“I’m feeling in the best shape bodywise, you know, spirit-wise, everything- wise,” Azarenka told reporters.
She remains on course for a mouth-watering fourth-round clash with Spanish Wimbledon runner-up Muguruza, who crushed Belgian Kirsten Flipkens 6-4, 6-2.
Wawrinka eased past 37-year-old qualifier Stepanek 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in the Hisense Arena and the Swiss next faces another Czech in Lukas Rosol.
Thirteenth seed Milos Raonic continued to shape as a dark horse, beating Tommy Robredo 7-6(5), 7-6(5), 7-5.
The on-court drama spilled into the stands early in the day at Rod Laver Arena, where a spectator was injured in a tumble down the stairs during former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic’s 6-3, 6-3 win over Anastasija Sevastova.
She faces big-hitting American youngster Madison Keys next in a meaty third-round clash.
Teenager Osaka gave a bow to thrilled Japanese fans after dumping 18th seed Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-4, continuing her impressive main draw debut at a Grand Slam.
Born to a Haitian father and raised in the US, Osaka remains a curiosity in her mother’s country but a show-court appearance against Azarenka could change all that.
“I always think that they’re surprised that I’m Japanese,” the frizzyhaired 18-year-old shrugged with an American accent.Reuters contributed to this report.