Madrid – Spain's Fernando Verdasco pulled off a stunning third-set comeback to defeat Rafael Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 Thursday in the third round of the Mutua Madrid Open, his first win over his countryman in 14 matches.
Nadal, a finalist at this clay-court event the past three years, served twice for the match at 5-2 and 5-4 but was unable to close out the contest, while Verdasco was finally able to hold his nerve and capitalize on his chances against the world No. 2.
Verdasco could have settled for merely winning his first set on clay in seven matches on that surface against Nadal, especially when the contest seemed out of reach at 2-5 in the third set, but the 19th-ranked Spaniard dug deep and reeled off five straight games to secure the victory.
Nadal took longer than usual to warm up despite the sweltering conditions inside the Caja Magica, dropping his opening service game to fall behind 2-0 and playing passively from the baseline and allowing Verdasco to dictate the rallies.
The statistics told the story, as Nadal hit just three winners over the course of the 66-minute first set compared with 15 for Verdasco.
But, despite feeling uncomfortable on the slippery blue-clay courts at this year's tournament, the world No. 2 came alive early in the second set to take a 3-1 lead. Verdasco managed to get the break back, but Nadal struck again in the eighth game to take a 5-3 lead and then served the set out in the next game.
Things then looked bleak for Verdasco when he went down two breaks of serve in the third set, but the match changed on a dime when Nadal missed an easy overhead at 5-2, 15-0, after which he was virtually unable to win any baseline rallies against his rock-solid and powerful opponent.
After losing four straight games to fall behind 5-6, Nadal needed to hold his serve to force a tiebreaker but found himself in trouble again. Nadal saved one match point with an ace, but a horrendous forehand in the net gave Verdasco a second opportunity, which he converted.
"I knew I was in control of the match (at 5-2 in the third set)," Nadal said in the post-match press conference. "I lost because I deserved to lose today, even if I was winning 5-2. When the moment came to close (out) the match I didn't know how to do it. I made a big mistake with a smash at 5-2 and 15-0, but that is just anecdotal. That's what happened, he played better than me and he beat me."
The Spaniard also bitterly complained about the blue-clay surface being used for the first time this year and threatened to skip the event next year if traditional red clay is not reinstalled in 2013.
"Being able to move is very important for me and if I can't move well, I can't hit the ball well either. If things don't change, this will be one less tournament on the calendar for me," Nadal said.
"This surface destabilizes the game. It is a completely different game and I don't want to take risks."
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the defending champion, also slammed the courts after his first-round win on Tuesday, saying he found it "impossible" to move well and was merely trying to put the ball in play.
Meanwhile, Verdasco, who collapsed on the ground after winning match point, said he was thrilled to finally score a victory over his long-time nemesis.
"After losing so many times against honestly the best player on clay ever, to beat him on clay is the maximum," the 28-year old said after the victory in three hours and 10 minutes. "I don't have words. I'm happy for the win, although it's difficult to hold myself together now. I need to calm down, rest and get ready for the next match."
In his 13 previous matches against Nadal, Verdasco had only forced a final set on two other occasions, both on hard courts: an epic, five-set thriller at the 2009 Australian Open and a three-set loss last year in Cincinnati.
But the world No. 2 had completely dominated their matches on clay, including a 6-0, 6-1 thrashing in the 2010 Monte Carlo final and a lopsided 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 win at the 2008 French Open.
Verdasco's victory also broke Nadal's 22-match winning streak on clay dating back to last year's French Open, where he captured his sixth Roland Garros trophy and 10th Grand Slam title.
Next up for Verdasco in Friday's quarterfinals will be Czech Tomas Berdych, who routed Frenchman Gael Monfils 6-1, 6-1.
In other round-of-16 action Thursday, Spaniard David Ferrer saved three match points to edge countryman Nicolas Almagro 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (8-6), Argentine Juan Martin del Potro cruised past Croatia's Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-4, Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov topped Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2) and Switzerland's Roger Federer trounced Frenchman Richard Gasquet 6-3, 6-2.
The Mutua Madrid Open is one of the biggest clay-court events on the tennis calendar and a key tune-up for the French Open, which gets underway later this month.