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Australian Open Final: Nadal To Face Federer

JOHN PYE   01/30/09 05:31 PM ET   AP

Nadal

MELBOURNE, Australia — After five arduous hours, Rafael Nadal couldn't hold back the tears when he pulled within a point of making the Australian Open final.

Yet he managed to compose himself and held off Fernando Verdasco in five sets. Verdasco double-faulted after saving two match points, and Nadal won 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4 in the longest match in the tournament's history. Nadal flopped on back _ exhausted and elated _ after a match few expected to go long.

The 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal between the Spanish left-handers started at dusk Friday and ended at 1:07 a.m. Saturday.

The top-ranked Nadal advanced to another final against Roger Federer, who is bidding to equal Pete Sampras' record 14 Grand Slam singles titles.

"Today was, yeah, one of these matches you going to remember long time, no?" Nadal said. "Well, the emotion was big."

Especially when the score got to love-40 in the last game.

"I start to cry. ... too much tension," he said.

Nadal can expect more tension Sunday when he meets Federer for the seventh time to decide a Grand Slam. Nadal has a 4-2 edge highlighted by last year's epic 4:48, five-set win at Wimbledon.

That was a breakthrough for Nadal, who had been all-conquering on clay since winning his first major at Roland Garros in 2005 but lost two Wimbledon finals to Federer. He later won the Olympic gold medal and ended Federer's record string of 237 weeks at No. 1.

The 22-year-old Spaniard couldn't compare the drama of his win over Verdasco with that of ending Federer's five-year reign on grass.

"The final of Wimbledon was the final of Wimbledon," he said, adding that victory was a "little bit more emotional."

Not that he was discounting the struggle against 14th-seeded Verdasco, who had never been beyond the fourth round at a major.

The 25-year-old Verdasco beat No. 4 Andy Murray _ tennis' hottest player entering the tournament _ in the fourth round and 2008 runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals.

"Verdasco was playing unbelievable," Nadal said. "I think I was very good mentally all the time, believing in the victory."

Nadal said Verdasco was "very tough" and finds it "amazing" to be in the final after such a match.

The scorching heat of the past three days dropped from a high of 113 degrees to under 86 before this semifinal at Rod Laver Arena.

With the arena's namesake in the crowd, Nadal was clearly tested by Verdasco ripped 95 winners. But he remained steadfast, averaging just five unforced errors a set.

For his part, Verdasco thought he might have done his friend a disservice: Nadal was pushed to five sets; Federer needed only straight sets to dispatch Andy Roddick in his semifinal but also got an extra day to rest.

"Really a pity for Rafa for sure that he won the match, that he played that long for the final," said Verdasco, who won the deciding match in Spain's Davis Cup triumph at Argentina last November.

"I want him to be 100 percent to play that final and to try to win," he added. "He's a big friend. I wish him the best of luck."

Serena Williams warmed up for Saturday night's women's final against Dinara Safina by combining with sister Venus to win the doubles title. They beat Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova and Japan's Ai Sugiyama 6-3, 6-3 under the roof at Melbourne Park.

It was the eighth Grand Slam doubles title and third in Australia for the Williams sisters, who also won the doubles gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

Serena is aiming for her 10th singles major and to continue a sequence that includes an Australian title in every odd-numbered year since 2003.

Also on the line is the No. 1 ranking, something Serena has already held. Safina has never won a major, coming closest with last year's French Open final loss to Ana Ivanovic.

The 22-year-old Russian was trying to emulate her brother, Marat Safin. He won the 2005 Australian title _ a day after Williams won her second one _ and also held the No. 1 ranking.

Following Serena Williams' match, twins Bob and Mike Bryan were hoping for an American doubles double. The second-seeded Bryan brothers were playing third-seeded Mahesh Bupathi of India and Mark Knowles of Bahamas in the men's final.

Nadal, after his late night and a good sleep, wanted to be on court practicing about 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Saturday, hoping to get the stiffness out of his legs. He acknowledged it would be tough to recover for his first Grand Slam final on a hard court.

"Roger has a bit of an advantage," said Nadal, who has improved one round with each of his five trips to Australia. "It's tough to sleep after something like this. But it's very important for me to be in this final. Whatever happens on Sunday, I've started the season my best ever."

Nadal had beaten Verdasco in all six previous matches, dropping only one set. He had set a tournament record in advancing through five matches, conceding fewer games (40) than anyone who previously reached the semis of a 128-man draw in Australia.

Verdasco was serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the fifth. As he wound up for his first serve, the match crossed the previous record of 5:11 that Boris Becker needed to beat Italy's Omar Camporese in the first round in 1991. Becker went on to win the title.

Verdasco had served only two double-faults in the entire match while firing 20 aces, yet gave Nadal triple-match point with his third. He saved two with swinging volleys, then surrendered the match with a fourth double-fault and dropped to his knees.

Nadal got off the ground, awkwardly crossed the net to hug and congratulate his opponent.

"Fernando is playing unbelievable. His serve was amazing _ he beat unbelievable players," Nadal said. "He deserves this win, too. I want to congratulate him for everything."

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Filed by Nicholas Sabloff  |