One for the record books

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Rafael Nadal barely avoided a hat trick at the Australian Open. You can bet he -- and tennis fans -- didn't mind one bit.

The previous two years, Nadal's Australian Open ended courtesy of the eventual and unlikely finalist, explosive Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and fiery Chilean Fernando Gonzalez. Fernando Verdasco came up just short Friday -- make that early Saturday morning -- as his pal and Davis Cup teammate prevailed 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4 in 5 hours and 14 minutes, the longest singles match in Australian Open history. Thankfully for the players and spectators, Melbourne's oppressive heat subsided on this historic evening, allowing the tennis to flow and organizers to keep the roof open at an appreciative Rod Laver Arena.

Verdasco, blessed with a huge serve and forehand like Tsonga and Gonzalez, produced a stunning 95 winners compared to 76 unforced errors. The figure is even more staggering, considering that striking clean winners against Nadal ain't easy. Nadal predictably wasn't shabby, either, coming up with 52 winners and 25 miscues. However, converting on just four of 20 break points can't sit well.

Oh, and the numbers don't tell the entire story. The epic featured two of the best rallies you'll ever see, a highlight-reel, Pete Sampras-like smash from the loser, and stern words from U.S. umpire Jake Garner, who told both Spaniards to eliminate coaching from the box. To boot, Verdasco seemed down and out early in the fourth, struggling with a calf cramp.

It's a shame the match ended on a double fault. Nadal didn't mind, collapsing to the ground and soon climbing over the net to hug his fallen countryman.

"Was very emotional today," Nadal said. "Well, was amazing match, no? Verdasco was playing unbelievable. Today was, yeah, one of these matches you gonna remember long time, no? Well, the emotion was big, because in the last game with the love-40, I start to cry. Was too much tension, no?"

And so it's the final most everyone wanted Sunday: Nadal versus Roger Federer in a repeat of their Wimbledon classic in July, which went five sets and nearly five hours. Nadal prevailed back then, claiming a first title at the All England Club and ending Federer's five-year reign.

How Federer, needing a solitary Grand Slam title to match Sampras' record of 14 majors, must be smiling. Nadal, even the physical specimen that he is, has to be pooped, while Federer is coming off Thursday's straight-sets semifinal win over Andy Roddick. Then again, Nadal played three straight completed matches on successive days prior to the Wimbledon final in 2007, and he still pushed a more rested Federer to five sets. Nadal has won the last four times the two men have faced off, and a fifth straight success would make him the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open in his maiden appearance in a Grand Slam hard-court final. At the tender age of 22, he's seeking a sixth major.

"Well, this little bit unlucky play one match like today, too hard," Nadal said. "So for sure, Roger gonna be in much better performance physically than me for the final. But at the same time, I gonna try to be recovered for the final and play my best."

Verdasco probably won't be overly disappointed once the dust settles. Following upset wins over brilliant Scot Andy Murray and Tsonga, Verdasco is assured of moving into the top 10, a career high. Andre Agassi and his former fitness coach, Gil Reyes, would be proud. Verdasco, prone to choking on big occasions in the past, spent the Christmas holidays beefing up his fitness with Reyes, getting a little advice from Agassi along the way. By the Spaniard's own admission, his career turned around after clinching Spain's Davis Cup title in Argentina in December.

"You know, is sad, no, to play one match like this and lost after five hours," Verdasco said. "But, you know, for the other side, I need to be proud for the tournament I made and the level I played today also. I think it was unbelievable match. You know, we both played unbelievable. For sure, I will have this match in my mind all my life."

Heading into Friday's match with an 0-6 record against Nadal (and having won just a single set), Verdasco came out swinging. The gel-infused 25-year-old
knew there was no point in being passive.

Nadal, meanwhile, knew he was in for a battle as early as the fourth game, uttering a "vamos" upon hitting an ace. Besides whaling on the forehand, Verdasco kept Nadal off balance on serve, mixing up speeds and location. He finished with a first-serve percentage of 68 (though his success dipped slightly in the fifth) and 20 aces. Nadal was puzzled. Twice in the opener, he fluffed backhand returns, one looking like a foul ball down the third-base line.

Verdasco manufactured the first break point in the fourth game and should have converted, only to send a makeable smash long. The turning point of the ensuing tiebreaker came at 5-4 for Verdasco. A backhand that was headed wide hit the top of the net, changed directions, and fell good.

Hard to believe, but the second set was even better, with the duo combining for 30 winners and 12 unforced errors. Breathtaking rally No. 1 occurred in the 10th game and might have been the turning point of the match. Nadal earned a set point by delivering a curling forehand down the line off a wicked backhand slice from Verdasco. The latter cracked, for once, on the next point, sending a backhand long.

Nadal failed to hold a break lead twice in the third, eventually overcoming Verdasco in another tiebreaker.

Deep in the fourth, the second unbelievable rally ensued. Somehow Nadal retrieved a crushed forehand down the line. Verdasco, with seemingly an easy put away at the net, clubbed the ball straight at his foe. Call it ball hitting racket, rather than the other way around, as Nadal replied. Verdasco, in a great position, smacked another ball; Nadal guessed right and deposited a cross-court forehand past Verdasco.

Nadal pumped his fist. Verdasco smiled.

"Everybody knows that he is the best player making this, no?" Verdasco said. "He gets unbelievable balls. You need to win the point against him three or four times more than against all the other players."

The fifth resembled a heavyweight bout in Las Vegas. Nadal had it won on a TKO, constantly pressuring Verdasco by mustering five break points in the first nine games. Down love-40 in the 10th, Verdasco set out on the great escape, delivering two good first serves. But in trying to draw to deuce on the next point, at 1:09 a.m. local time, his second serve landed in the net.

And with it, Nadal crumbled to the court, exhausted, yet ecstatic. It remains to be seen how happy he'll be Sunday.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.