Verdasco double-faults away match point; Cilic wins 5-setter

<p>
              Croatia's Marin Cilic serves to Spain's Fernando Verdasco during their third round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
            </p>

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Fernando Verdasco’s jaw dropped and he grabbed at a tuft of his hair, struggling to understand how he could have just double-faulted to fritter away a match point against Marin Cilic at the Australian Open.

That was part of quite a collapse by Verdasco, who also wasted an earlier match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker and let 2018 runner-up Cilic construct a 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8), 6-3 comeback in a third-round match that began Friday night and ended more than 4 hours later at nearly 1 a.m. on Saturday.

“I was just slightly luckier in those crucial moments,” the sixth-seeded Cilic said.

The 2014 U.S. Open champion erased Verdasco’s initial match point at 7-6 in the fourth-set tiebreaker with a service winner of his own. Then he only had to watch as Verdasco gave away another chance to win at 8-7 by failing to put either serve in play.

The 35-year-old Verdasco actually served rather well for most of the match, finishing with more aces than Cilic, 27-8, and a higher first-serve percentage, 68-58.

But given that reprieve by Verdasco’s third of five double-faults, Cilic produced a down-the-line backhand winner to cap a 20-stroke exchange and earn a set point. He followed that with a forehand winner to grab that set and send the match to a fifth.

Cilic quickly took a 3-0 lead in the concluding set, then got past one last test while serving at 4-2 — Verdasco held three break points at love-40 — to advance.

“Unbelievable. Emotions were up and down,” Cilic said. “When I was down two sets to none, it was a big hill to climb.”

It’s the seventh time in Cilic’s career that he has emerged to win a match after dropping the opening two sets.

He also did it in the third round of the previous Grand Slam tournament — against Alex de Minaur at the U.S. Open in September.

“I am just putting myself in a hole,” Cilic said, “and then let’s see what I’m going to do.”

He now faces No. 22 Roberto Bautista-Agut, who eliminated No. 10 Karen Khachanov 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

Verdasco, a lefty from Spain seeded 26th, was trying to get to the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since 2011. His best showing at a major came at Melbourne Park in 2009, when he reached the semifinals.