Nadal edges Dimitrov in five set epic

Rafael Nadal emerged the winner in a near five hour marathon semi-final against an inspired Grigor Dimitrov at the Australian Open on Friday.

The Spaniard played his best tennis in quite some time to eventually overcome Dimitrov 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5),6-7(4), 6-4 on a glorious evening in Melbourne.

The 15th seed did his best to answer Nadal’s power game, often coming up trumps. But what was fascinating was the unbelievable levels of fitness and athleticism shown by both players as they toiled deep into early Saturday morning. 

It was as much a war of attrition as a battle of skill and Dimitrov – who powered 79 winners past Nadal – played the match of his career, but it was not enough.

The win moves Nadal into his 31st grand slam final, which ties Novak Djokovic. Meanwhile, Dimitrov was bidding to become the first Bulgarian to feature in a grand slam final and he came oh so close…

Nadal started on top in the Rod Laver Arena. A confident Dimitrov landed a few forehand bombs but it was Nadal who got the early break to go 3-1 up, after which he served out the set.

But Dimitrov enjoyed a strong passage of play and shifted the momentum early in the second set. He forced Nadal into some errors to break him and go 3-1 up. While Dimitrov gave Nadal a sniff of a break back the very next game, three accurate serves consolidated the break. 

In a bizarre sequence of events, a double fault from Dimitrov would gift Nadal a break, but he would return the favour the very next game. 

Serving to stay in the set, Nadal seemed to falter mentally as he gave Dimitrov four breakpoint and set point chances, but he saved them all during some sensational tennis, much to the crowds delight. It appeared Nadal had the momentum but Dimitrov easily hold serve then break Nadal one more time to tie things up at one set all. 

The ebb and flow continued in the third set as the pair swapped breaks mid-set. Just to add to the drama, there was an untimely delay as a spectator had to be attended to by medical personnel in the stands. When play resumed, Nadal held serve to force a tiebreaker. After several brutal rallies, Dimitrov sent a backhand long and handed Nadal set point, which he gratefully received.

The tense fourth set went with serve without a breakpoint opportunity until the tiebreaker, where Dimitrov was pure class. His powerful serve once again came to the fore, helping him to a 5-2 after which he served out the set to force a decider. In contrast, Nadal’s serve was becoming increasingly predictable and losing pace.

Nadal found himself under pressure in the fifth set, two break points down at 3-4. But clutch moments call for big players…and their are few bigger than Nadal. He saved the break points via a couple winners and after crunching another winner to hold, he pumped himself and the crowd up with a trademark fist pump.

This is where Nadal found another gear and broke Dimitrov in the crucial ninth game, leaving himself serving for the match. Dimitrov managed to save two match points but an unforced error would see Nadal into his fourth Australian Open final. 

Like a true champion, the 14-time grand slam winner had found a way to win despite his serve being virtually null and void. 

The victory confirms the final so many fans were hoping for. Roger Federer and Nadal have built one of sport's greatest rivalries and last met in a grand slam final in 2011 at Roland Garros, where Nadal won in four sets.

While they have not met since 2015, Nadal leads their head-to-head statistic 23-11 and has won in five out of their last six meetings.

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