Rafael Nadal's rare early exit will raise more questions

— -- MELBOURNE -- Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco had one of the more famous matches in Australian Open history in 2009 when they played a then-record 5 hours, 14 minutes in the men's semifinals. If that sounds long, consider that Verdasco says he has probably watched the match 10 times since then. And, he emphasizes, he has watched the entire match each time.

If so, that means he has spent more than 52 hours staring at Nadal and him battling back and forth. Fifty-two hours! You could binge-watch the entire "Breaking Bad'' series in that span, and almost have enough time left over to see the entire John Isner- Nicolas Mahut match as well.

"Why do I watch? I mean, to learn," Verdasco said. "To see how I played, how I took the chances, how I didn't."

Now Verdasco has another long match to his viewing list. In Tuesday's first round, he and Nadal played 4 hours, 41 minutes. Only this time, Rafa might be the one who should re-watch 10 times over. Verdasco won 7-6 (6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 to hand the fifth-seeded Nadal his first Australian Open first-round exit and just his second first-round loss in a major.

"The match is a tough loss for me, obviously, especially because this is not like last year when I arrived here playing bad and feeling not ready for it," Nadal said. "This year was a completely different story. I have been playing and practicing great and working so much. It's tough when you work so much and arrive at a very important event and you go out too early."

If this year was different, the obvious question is this one: Is 2016 going to be somewhat worse for Nadal?

Nadal is 29, just a year older than Novak Djokovic and five years younger than Roger Federer. But he has had knee issues and his career has been in decline. Last year, he lost at the French Open for the first time since 2009, and did not win any majors (or reach a final, either) for the first time in 11 years. He also won the fewest tournaments (three) since 2004. At one point, his ranking slid to No. 10.

He improved at the end of the year and opened this season by losing to Djokovic in the Qatar Open final. That was Nadal's fifth consecutive loss against the current world No. 1 and the ninth in their past 10 meetings after having beaten Djokovic in 22 of their previous 37 matches. Nadal also has lost his dominance against Verdasco. He beat the fellow left-handed Spaniard the first 13 times they played, but Verdasco has won three of their past four meetings.

"In terms of being competitive, I was competitive. In terms of creating damage to the opponent with my forehand, I didn't," Nadal said. "So I was hitting forehands, and he was able to keep hitting winners."

After losing the first set Tuesday, Nadal appeared to gain command of the match by winning the next two sets. He had a 6-5 lead in the fourth and was ahead 30-0 in the 12th game before Verdasco came roaring back to win in the tiebreaker. Despite the heat and length of the game, Verdasco was still hitting groundstrokes in excess of 100 mph. Nadal won the first two games of the final set, but Verdasco won the next six, completing his victory with a 96 mph cross-court winner.

"I think today's match was very similar [to 2009] in terms of even games in the sets, going to five sets," Verdasco said. "But, of course, at the beginning of the fifth, I was for a second thinking about that semifinals. I was like, 'Please, I don't want to lose. ... He started breaking my serve. After that, I started playing really good, hitting very hard serves, forehands and didn't make many mistakes."

Nadal said his biggest mistake was not being aggressive enough in the first set. "He was not playing that well in the first set," he said. "I should take advantage there, but I didn't. Then you lose the first. You play against a player that has good potential and he's able to hit the ball so hard and take risks, then you are under pressure the rest of the match. I could win the match, but I lost because he felt great."

After Nadal beat Verdasco in the 2009 semifinals, he went on to win the Australian Open, his only title here. Will he be able to win at Roland Garros this year, or anywhere else in the future in his pursuit of matching Federer's 17 major titles?

"You never know what's going on in the future," Nadal said. "I felt that I was practicing great, playing very good. I was practicing a little bit different, trying to be more inside the court. It's obvious that all the changes are not easy and especially are difficult to make [them] happen when you are competing.

"But ... if I am not doing that, then I am dead. I can play defensive or offensive, but if you stay in the middle, at the end of the day, you are doing nothing."