No. 9-seed Rafael Nadal defeated No. 15-seed Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-7(3), 6-4 on Friday in Melbourne to advance to the Australian Open final, his first major final since the 2014 French Open.
The match was intense from the start—there were no semifinal jitters from either opponent—and it remained a tight battle throughout the entire four hour and 56 minutes.
After beating No. 3-seed Milos Raonic in straight sets in the quarterfinals, Nadal came out strong in the opening set, taking control of the points from the first ball. After a few exchanges of comfortable holds, Nadal broke Dimitrov’s serve in the fourth game and closed out the opening set 6-3 in 35 minutes.
In the second set, Dimitrov, playing in his second Slam semifinal, made it known he wasn’t going away quietly. Though Nadal led the head-to-head over Dimitrov 7-1 heading into their Australian Open semifinal, the Bulgarian earned his only win less than four months ago in Beijing and he seemed to find that form in the second set. He employed a more attacking style and broke Nadal’s serve in the fourth game. After faltering on a chance to serve it out at 5-3, Dimitrov allowed Nadal to get back in—the Spaniard saved four sets points in the 10th game—but was finally able to convert on his fifth set point to take the second set 7-5.
In the third set, after a delay in play after the 11th game with because of a fan needing medical attention in the crowd, Nadal was able to hold his serve and win the set in a tiebreak. The fourth set continued to be a hard-fought battle, as Dimitrov dug deep and found his serve, which helped him to force another tiebreak. It was there where the 25-year-old showed extraordinary fight and ultimately took control, attacking the forehand and forcing Nadal into errors to send the match into a decider after nearly four hours of play.
If the first four sets were any indication of the level, the fifth set did not disappoint. Once again, Nadal and Dimitrov traded holds, fighting off break points and winning incredible, high-quality rallies after more than four hours of tennis. Serving at 3-4, Nadal fought off two break points to hold for 4-4 and then hit a backhand winner down the line to break Dimitrov in the next game for a 5-4 lead. On his third match point opportunity, Nadal finally served it out to seal the win and his spot in the final against No. 17-seed Roger Federer.
"It’s difficult to describe the emotions," Nadal said in his post-match interview on the court. "Grigor was playing unbelievable. It was a great match...The crowd was just amazing. Many, many thanks for that huge support. To qualify for the final like this means a lot to me. I never dreamed to be back in the final of the Australian Open...but, here I am."
The 14-time major winner, who is coming off several months off after an injury to his left wrist, will face Federer in Sunday’s final, a highly anticipated match-up of a classic tennis rivalry. Nadal leads their head-to-head record 23-11 and has beaten Federer in six of their eight Grand Slam final meetings, including wins at the Australia Open in the 2009 final and in the semifinals in 2012 and ‘14.