Nadal into final after Dimitrov epic
Originally published on 27/01/17 00:00
The 2009 champion reached the 21st major final of his career with a hard-fought 6-3 5-7 7-6(5) 6-7(4) 6-4 victory after nearly five hours on Rod Laver Arena.
Ranked No.9 and No.17 respectively, few would have predicted a final between Nadal and long-time rival Federer, but with 31 Grand Slam titles between them, two of the greatest players of all time will meet again on the biggest stage – to the delight of tennis fans around the world. It will be the first time since the 2011 French Open that the pair will face off in a Grand Slam final.
"I hope to recover well and for me it is a privilege,” said Nadal. “It is a special thing for both of us to be able to compete against each other in a major final. I think we both thought that we wouldn't be back in major finals."
Both players had to work for their place in the final. Federer needed five sets to find a way past Stan Wawrinka on Thursday, while Nadal was pushed to the limit by a resilient Dimitrov in a match lasting four hours and 56 minutes. It is the first Grand Slam tournament since the 2009 French Open that both men's semi-finals went to five sets.
After saving two break points in the opening game, it was reasonably plain sailing for Nadal in the early stages. Pouncing on a loose service game from Dimitrov to break in the fourth game, Nadal never looked in danger of surrendering his advantage, winning 90% of points on his first serve as he took the opener.
With both players dropping just six points on serve in the opening set, the second was a very different story, featuring five breaks of serve. Twice Dimitrov forged ahead, only for Nadal to claw his way back. When four set points came and went for Dimitrov, there were echoes of Nadal’s straight sets win over Raonic in the quarter-finals, in which the Canadian squandered six set points in the second set. But as Nadal served to stay in the set for a second time, the Bulgarian roared with delight after converting a fifth set point when a Nadal backhand fizzed long.
In a tense third set, the pair traded a break each midway through the set, and after a brief delay when a spectator in the crowd was taken ill, Nadal held to love to force a tiebreak. Dimitrov had never won a breaker against Nadal, and the Spaniard maintained his unbeaten record to take the lead once again.
The fourth set was no less nervy, with Nadal predominantly the aggressor but Dimitrov refusing to yield, and the Bulgarian showed his mettle when he twice served to stay in the match, and showed incredible fight to take the tiebreak and force a decider.
In what was turning into a classic match as the clock approached midnight in Melbourne, neither player willing to yield. But after a superb display of endurance from both players, it was Dimitrov who blinked first. After seeing Nadal save another two break points, an unsuccessful HawkEye challenge, double fault and unlucky net cord saw Dimitrov’s resistance broken, and amid a fervent atmosphere on Rod Laver Arena.
After a high-quality match and a sensational fight from both players, it was only fitting that Dimitrov saved two match points, but Nadal got the job done at the third time of asking to reach his first Australian Open final since 2012.
“Grigor was playing unbelievable,” said Nadal. “It was a great match. I am very happy to be part of it, the crowd was amazing. Many thanks for the huge support, the last two weeks have been unforgettable for me. "When you work hard and have tough moments like last year, I never dreamed to be back in the Australian Open after a lot of months without competing.”
He added: "I think both of us deserve to be in that final. Was a great fight. Finally was me. I feel lucky. I am very happy for that."
Nadal will take heart from the fact that the last time he won in Melbourne, he needed five hours and 14 minutes to see off Fernando Verdasco in the semis before beating Federer in a five-set final, although he was eight years younger at the time.