(photo credit: NIR KEIDAR/ISRAEL TENNIS ASSOCIATION)
Dudi Sela hopes to make the most of the biggest upset of this year’s Australian Open to date when he faces Rafael Nadal’s conqueror Fernando Verdasco in the second round in Melbourne on Thursday.
Israel’s lone representative in the singles tournaments advanced to the second round on Tuesday with a 6-1, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 win over Benjamin Becker of Germany and surely thought he was set to face Nadal for a second straight year in Melbourne.
However, to 30-year-old Sela, ranked No. 87 in the world, who lost to the 14-time Grand Slam winner in the third round in 2015, his best major performance in more than five years, will instead play Verdasco, who faces a race against time to recover from a four-hour and 41 minute battle with his countryman.
Nadal, a 14-time Grand Slam champion, was bundled out in the first round on Tuesday, toppled by the 32-year-old Fernando Verdasco in a five-set marathon that left the center court crowd stunned and the former world No. 1 shattered.
The 7-6(6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 loss was the 2009 champion’s first in an opening round at Melbourne Park and only his second first-round loss in a Grand Slam.
Leading 2-0 in the final set, Nadal was poised to prevail in a highly physical encounter, but world No. 45 Verdasco dragged himself off the canvas to win six straight games with a barrage of forehand winners.
“He was playing amazing in the last set,” a gutted Nadal told reporters. “He had a lot of success with all the balls hitting full power in the fifth. “I didn’t feel it. I tried. I fought. I was ready to do it, and I didn’t. So I am sad for that.”
After shaking hands with his opponent and the chair umpire, Nadal strode quickly off the court, barely pausing to acknowledge the crowd with a wave.
Nadal’s only other first-round defeat in a major was against Belgium’s Steve Darcis at Wimbledon in 2013.
Verdasco sealed the four hour and 41-minute classic in style, breaking Nadal’s serve for a third time in the set with a flashing crosscourt winner.
“I just hit everything. I think I played unbelievable in the fifth set from the break,” Verdasco, beaten by Nadal in the 2009 semifinals, said in a courtside interview.
On the women’s side, second seed Simona Halep was knocked out of the first round of the by Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai on Tuesday, going down 6-4, 6-3 to the inspired world No. 133.
The 24-year-old Romanian, who came to Melbourne nursing an Achilles injury and suffering from a cold, left Margaret Court Arena in tears after the stunning upset.
Zhang was also reduced to tears after securing her first victory in a Grand Slam main singles draw at her 15th attempt, shrieking as she secured victory in 78 minutes.
Also, Venus Williams’s dreams of winning a first Australian Open title at the age of 35 were shattered when she was beaten 6-4, 6-2 by British No. 1 Johanna Konta.
Meanwhile, in his last Australian Open, an emotional Lleyton Hewitt made it through to the second round in the men’s singles, the 34-year-old Australian beating compatriot James Duckworth 7-6(5), 6-2, 6-4.
French Open champion Stan Wawrinka shook off a stubborn early challenge from Dmitry Tursunov to advance to the second round when his Russian opponent retired.
Wawrinka was leading 7-6(2), 6-3 when Tursunov indicated to the umpire he was unable to continue any further.
Tursunov, playing his first Grand Slam since the 2014 US Open after battling a succession of foot injuries, had an opportunity to snatch the first set before the Swiss forced a tiebreak, that he won easily 7-2.
The 2014 Melbourne Park champion then pulled away to a 3-0 lead in the second set before Tursunov sought treatment on his painful hip and when the fourth-seeded Wawrinka sealed the second set, the Russian retired.
Elsewhere, two-time champ Victoria Azarenka sent a strong message to the rest of the field with a 6-0, 6-0 hammering of Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck in just 53 minutes in the final match of the second day’s play.Reuters contributed to this report.