Novak Djokovic inched closer to a record-extending 10th Australian Open title after he overcame a sluggish start to defeat Tommy Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals at Melbourne Park, here on Friday.
Rafael Nadal proved he isn't done yet, outlasting Grigor Dimitrov in the Australian Open men’s singles semifinal 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 on Thursday, joining Roger Federer in what is sure to be an epic final on Sunday.
After an injury-plagued couple of years, question marks had been surrounding the 30-year-old Spaniard’s fitness but he has been brilliant at 2017’s first Slam and against a player who supposedly mirrors his great rival Federer, he was forced to dig deep to come through.
While Dimitrov was playing some inspired tennis and stuck to his game-plan to attack the 2009 Australian Open champion from the start, a strategy which unsettled the left-handed Nadal on many instances in the semifinal which was akin to a marathon, lasting four hours and 56 minutes.
A key point in the tie came in the very first game of the opening set itself, with Nadal facing two break points but somehow managed to survive to hold his serve but that didn't faze Dimitrov who continued to go for the winner time and again.
And that approach would come to haunt him in the fourth game, as he allowed Nadal to break him to take a 3-1 lead in the set. And the 14-time Grand Slam champion was in no mood to give his Bulgarian opponent a way back, taking the set in just 35 minutes.
After being stretched by rising star Alexander Zverev in the third round, Nadal has improved substantially in the following rounds against Gael Monfils and Milos Raonic and he was wasn't expecting an easy ride against a player who he had a 7-1 record in head-to-head meetings.
Dimitrov showed glimpses of his prodigal talent in the second set, breaking Nadal three times to level the tie at 1-1 set all. Nadal broke his opponent as well, but with his unforced errors piling up, the 25-year-old Bulgarian took the set in an energy-sapping 63 minutes.
Perhaps Nadal’s biggest hallmark, is his ability to tire his opponents out even if he loses a game, or set for that matter. And the 9th-seeded Nadal was doing just that, stretching out points much longer than any average player could, before a frustrated Dimitrov would either hit a blistering winner or miss a seemingly-easy shot.
In the third set, both players threw everything they had at the other, as Nadal’s feared forehand finally coming to the fore, but despite breaking ‘Baby Federer’ early on, the set went into a tie break, in which Nadal was forced to move up the gears to clinch a two sets to one advantage.
If the third was intense, the fourth set was breathtaking as neither player was able to break the other, but with Dimitrov stepping it up in the tiebreak, Nadal was denied what could have been an ‘easy’ four-sets win. The Bulgarian’s one-handed backhands down the line and the inside-out forehands were a delight to watch, but with a gritty Nadal pushing all the way, the margins were very fine indeed and eventually Dimitrov was able to force the the game into a fifth and final set.
Credit to the Bulgarian and his team, as the player has been enjoying a resurgence of sorts after being terribly inconsistent in the last two years. And if he was looking exhausted earlier, after demolishing Nadal in the tiebreak, he was all pumped-up and ready to take the legendary Spaniard on.
Nadal was facing two break points in the eight game, but his brilliance turned the match on his head, as he saved both, holding his serve to level the set at 4-4 before breaking Dimitrov in the next game to serve for the match.
And serve for the match he did, setting up match point with a blistering ace and while his Bulgarian opponent denied him the opportunity to wrap up proceedings on the first attempt, Nadal was not to be denied, taking the match on his third match point and set up a 9th Grand Slam final meeting with Roger Federer.
While Federer will have had an extra day off due to his final being played on Thursday, Nadal will be backing himself to come up big on Sunday against the Swiss master, of that there is no doubt.