Waiting for the strings to reach a crescendo

Fernando Verdasco and Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic played two of the best remembered matches of recent times at the Australian Open. In 2009, Verdasco lost a semi-final to Rafael Nadal that seemed to finish shortly before dawn, the longest played at the Open. The year before, Tipsarevic came within an ace of upsetting Roger Federer in the third round in another epic five-set tussle, finally succumbing 10-8. Both play plenty of five-setters, and mostly win them.
Pitched against one another yesterday, they produced another match for the ages, replete with adventurous strokeplay, twists and turns, no discernible backward step, gallantry and not a little theatre, not to mention lyricism in commentary.
Effects helped. Tipsarevic's distinction is that he plays in glasses, all the better for staring madly. Verdasco sports a half-grown-out mohawk, Cristiano Ronaldo style, and a full spectrum of colourful gesticulations. Upon losing one set, he broke his racquet over his knee. But when winning another, he launched into such an impassioned dialogue with his clenched right fist as to make Lleyton Hewitt's conversations with his imaginary pal Rocky look like two Trappist monks in conclave.
Tipsarevic, ranked 49th, overwhelmed Verdasco, the No. 9 seed, in the first two sets, and twice served for the match in the fourth. Verdasco hung in, saved three match points, and set all at Hisense Arena on the edge of their seats. Three-and-a-half hours had elapsed.
And there, suddenly, the match stopped. Verdasco won the tie-break to love. Between sets, Tipsarevic called in a trainer to treat cramp, unavailingly.

In the fifth set, he could do no more than poke a token racquet at the ball as it flew past him, and won just five points. In 25 minutes, it was all over 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-0), 6-0, leaving Verdasco to do more damage to the air with his fists. It was not so much anti-climax as its disappearance.
Far from plead for understanding, Tipsarevic scourged himself. ''Three match points, and in one of those, three volleys … it was not fitness. It's my fault,'' he said, evoking memories of the maudlin introspection of Goran Ivanisevic. ''I don't want people to get the wrong impression. I didn't tank. I didn't lose on purpose. I didn't have a mental meltdown. I was just dead in the legs.''
Tipsarevic's CV shows a string of victories over top-10 opponents, yet also that he has never been higher than No. 33 himself. It irks him. ''This is one of the worst losses of my career,'' he said. ''I don't feel bad now because I'm tired, but I probably will feel really bad tomorrow. You don't get more chances than this. Two times serving for the match. Three match points. It's ridiculous.''
To the victor, the spoils. Verdasco, asked a loaded question about whether he thought Tipsarevic was trying, replied: ''I don't know. This is a question that he must answer, not me.''
In some ways, this match summed up a tournament that so far has lacked its usual quota of drama and aggravation.