Australian Open 2017

Australian Open 2017: Nadal denies Dimitrov—sets title match with old rival Federer

The former world No1 beats Grigor Dimitrov in a thrilling last-four match to set up a meeting with old foe Roger Federer in Australian Open final

By any measure, this year’s Australian Open has been exceptional.

The two dominant players of the last year in the men’s draw, and last year’s finalists, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, did not make it into the second week.

The new No1 in women’s tennis and defending champion Angelique Kerber also fell in the fourth round, with the third and fourth seeds already gone.

Meanwhile fairy-tale stories unfolded when Mischa Zverev, age 29 and close to calling time on his career after injuries, unleashed left-handed serve and volley tennis of two decades ago to set his dream contest with hero and four-time champion Roger Federer, Then Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, now age 34 and with just one Major semi to her name back in 1999—also sidelined by personal battles and injury—reached another to face six-time champion Serena Williams for the first time since 1998.

Both underdogs lost, but both were still thrilled.

Meanwhile, two unexpected narratives were beginning to trend in the second week. On the women’s side, No2 seed Williams was making her expected progress through the draw. By the time she reached the final she was yet to drop a set. But through the top half of the draw came Williams’ older sister Venus, seeded 13, age 36, and proving that mature years and Sjogrens Syndrome cannot keep a passionate player down.

Not since 2009 had Venus reached a Grand Slam final, not since 2003 had she done so at the Australian Open, and having faced her sister 28 times, eight times in a Major final, this would be their first Grand Slam final since Wimbledon 2009.

On the men’s side, Federer and Rafael Nadal, both returning to the tour after long injury absences, were confounding their unusually low seedings to work their way toward a first Grand Slam final meeting since Roland Garros in 2011. And both had overcome huge hurdles in the process.

Federer, seeded 17, faced No10 Tomas Berdych in the third round, No5 Kei Nishikori in the fourth, and No4 Stan Wawrinka in the semis. Nadal had come through No24 Sascha Zverev in Round 3, No6 Gael Monfils in Round 4, and No3 Milos Raonic in the quarters.

By the time the semi-finals were set, they contained six over-30s, four of them over 34, with a 25-year-old making up the numbers in each draw. Four of the players were former Australian champions, four were former No1s, and one in each draw was ranked just 17: Federer and Venus Williams.

The big remaining question was whether Nadal could jump one more hurdle and complete the dream final weekend, the Williams sisters on Saturday, and Federer-Nadal on Sunday. For these two great rivals, with 17 and 14 Grand Slam titles respectively, have a history even greater than the Williams. They have met 34 times, eight times in Grand Slam finals, but the last Major final was almost six years ago.

Few expected Nadal’s match against the No15 seed Grigor Dimitrov to live up to the intense contest between friends and compatriots Federer and Wawrinka, which saw the former fight off break points in the fifth set before winning in just over three hours.

But the last singles semi of the championships was to become the best of the fortnight, five sets and almost five hours of high-quality, see-sawing tennis that kept the Rod Laver arena packed and roaring long after the trains back to the city had stopped.

This was the ninth meeting between Nadal and Dimitrov, an elegant, all-court, one-hander with more than a hint of Federer’s game about him. His early promise—a Wimbledon semi-final almost three years ago took him to No8 in the rankings—had faded through a dip of confidence, but this had changed in the last few months. Indeed he scored his first ever win over Nadal in Beijing in October, and went on to win his first title in two and a half years in Brisbane, beating three top-10 players to do so.

The young Bulgarian almost took first blood here, too, earning two break points in the first game. But Nadal snuffed out the chance with great serving.

Dimitrov had a chance to show off his serve with a love hold and two aces, but Nadal was already plying the Dimitrov backhand with his lunging forehand, and come the fourth game, Nadal slotted his signature forehand down the line to break, 3-1. He kept up the pressure in the next, holding to love, and although Dimitrov was playing better with each game, the set was not for turning, 6-3. It had taken a swift 35 minutes.

Come the second set and Dimitrov’s confidence looked higher: He threw in a couple of net finishes, unleashed some forehand winners, and began to read more of Nadal’s serves. He pounded two winners in the fourth game and, following repeated gestures from his box about the time taken between points, the umpire warned Nadal. It threw the Spaniard, and a minute later, he had been broken to love.

Dimitrov took a 4-1 lead, but Nadal regrouped, hammered down some huge serves, and turned that same intensity against Dimitrov’s serve. The younger man opened with a double fault, and closed with another to hand the break back.

Now Dimitrov began to attack the net more often, and Nadal obliged with two uncharacteristic errors and a double fault to give up the break again, 3-5. Yet Dimitrov still failed to capitalise, making his own forehand errors, and Nadal also broke back.

The Spaniard then had to battle through a full 10 minutes and four set points, but he survived for 5-5. It was not long, though, before he faced set point again, courtesy of Dimitrov’s 13th net winner, a diving forehand dink. And this time, the Bulgarian made no mistake: the hour-long set was his, 7-5. The increased aggression in Dimitrov’s tactics were clear: 12 of his 13 net winners had come in this set.

In the third set, they matched each other with love holds, then an exchange of breaks, and the gripping set moved towards a tie-break.

When they changed ends, Nadal was 4-2 up, Dimitrov pulled level at 5-5, but Nadal drove his opponent through two gruelling baseline rallies to seize the set, 7-6(5). It had taken 70 minutes, and Nadal not only now had the momentum but the first serve.

At the start of the fourth set, the intensity surged again. Nadal pinned Dimitrov way back, so the Bulgarian managed just six net plays in the first seven games. By the time he served to love for 5-5, he had played just one more. But a tie-break it was, and this time, they changed ends with Dimitrov 4-2 ahead, and he did now come to the net to seize the set, 7-6(4).

With the battle just shy of four hours, they were separated by just two points, 144-142 in Nadal’s favour, and the Spaniard came out with all guns blazing. Dimitrov could not let his focus and intensity drop one iota, and it took him over 10 minutes, five deuces and three break points to hold the first game. And it was not just the games that were long: the longest rally of the match, at 23 shots, opened Nadal’s service game, and he denied a Dimitrov break chance again.

The fitness of the Bulgarian began to impress against the irresistible force of Nadal. He pulled off a remarkable hold, falling, then slotting a pick-up winner, to save break point in the fifth game. Not only that, Dimitrov now worked two break points for a 5-3 lead, only to see Nadal play two of his best points of the match to hold. The arena erupted.

That lost chance hit Dimitrov hard: He fired a huge double fault before a net cord took a forehand out for break point. Nadal pounded a winner, and would serve for the match.

Even closure was not straightforward. Three times Nadal faced deuce, but at the third time of asking, he extracted one last error from Dimitrov to take himself to the final, 6-4, in just four minutes short of five hours.

So the dream, for Nadal and for the tournament, is complete. He fell to the court in relief before a long embrace with the other star of this showpiece match, Dimitrov. But it will be those old rivals, Federer and Nadal, who seek Grand Slam glory come Sunday.

Nadal referred back to the same moment, in Mallorca few months back, that Federer had mentioned the night before.

“I hope to recover well, and then for me it’s a privilege, a very, very special thing—I think for both of us. I was with him in the opening of my Academy, which he opened—and thank you to him for that amazing moment. We were talking there that we were supposed to play an exhibition match, and he had an injury with his knee and me with my wrist, so finally we just played some shots with the kids. I think we never expected to be here in the final of the Australian Open, so I think we feel very happy.”

Not just Rafa and Roger, but a few million more.

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