AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — For five sets and nearly five hours, two chiseled Spanish left-handers went head-to-head again at the Australian Open.
It wasn’t a semifinal this time, though, and It didn’t end nearly as well for Rafael Nadal, who lost 7-6 (6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 to Fernando Verdasco and was eliminated in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament for only the second time in a career that has netted him 14 major titles.
Nadal won his only Australian title in 2009 after overcoming Verdasco in a 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal, a match that still ranks among the classics at Melbourne Park.
This time, Verdasco rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win the last two sets, and came from a break down in the fifth to win in 4:41 and reach the second round. Nadal’s only previous first-round exit in a Grand Slam was at Wimbledon in 2013, when he lost in straight sets to No. 135-ranked Steve Darcis of Belgium.
“It’s a hard and painful loss,” the fifth-seeded Nadal said. “He was playing amazing in the last set … more aggressive than me. He took more risks than me, and he won. Probably he deserved.”
No. 2 Simona Halep and seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams also went out in the first round on Tuesday, when a series of upsets took some focus off a match-fixing controversy that had overshadowed the first day of the season’s first major.
Halep, the 2014 French Open finalist, lost 6-4, 6-3 to Zhang Shuai, giving the No. 133-ranked Chinese qualifier her first win at a Grand Slam after 14 losses.
“It’s OK. I don’t want to make this match like dramatic,” said Halep, who refused to blame an Achilles tendon problem for contributing to her third first-round loss in five years at Melbourne Park.
Verdasco went for everything on his ground strokes, ripping 90 winners against only 37 for Nadal as he worked to the extremes to unsettle his former No. 1-ranked rival.
“To win against Rafa here coming from two sets down is unbelievable,” the No. 45-ranked Verdasco said. “I think I played unbelievable — the fifth set from the break that he made me, I just started hitting winners. I don’t know how, just, you know I was closing the eyes and everything was coming in and I keep doing it and I was doing well.”
Stan Wawrinka, who beat Nadal in the 2014 Australian final, and four-time runner-up Andy Murray advanced, along with No. 8 David Ferrer, No. 10 John Isner, no. 13 Milos Raonic and Lleyton Hewitt, the two-time major winner who is playing his 20th and last Australian Open tournament before retiring.
French Open champion Wawrinka was leading 7-6 (2), 6-3 when his opponent Dmitry Tursonov retired with what appeared to be an upper leg injury.
After beating Halep, Zhang burst into tears when asked about breaking the drought.
“I think in my life, it’s the best tennis,” she said. “To win against a top-two player, I’m so happy, so excited.”
Williams lost 6-4, 6-2 to Johanna Konta, her eighth first-round loss at a major.
No. 3 Garbine Muguruza and No. 7 Angelique Kerber advanced along with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azerenka, who closed play on center court with a 6-0, 6-0 rout of Alison Van Uytvanck.
No. 2-ranked Murray, who opened with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 win over Alexander Zverev, answered questions about reports, published by the BBC and Buzzfeed News, that match-fixing had gone unchecked in tennis.
The ATP and the other governing bodies for tennis have denied the allegations, and no players have been identified in the reports, but Murray said the authorities should have taken a more obvious lead in stamping it out.
“I just think that it should be tennis that does a better job of explaining,” Murray said. “You have to be proactive with things like this and go and speak to the players rather than them reading about it in the newspapers or listening to it on the TV or the radio.”