In one of the best Grand Slam semi-finals in recent history, a pumped up Rafael Nadal overcame a spirited Grigor Dimitrov 6-3 5-7 7-6(5) 6-7(4) 6-4 in a 4hr 54min epic to set up a delightful Federer-Nadal Australian Open final on Sunday.
The match was dead even, with nothing to separate the two. The rallies were extremely physical, with both players bashing the ball and retrieving with equal venom. Every time you thought that the point was over, you'd find it going on for another 10 shots, simply because of the raw athletic ability of both players.
Dimitrov went toe-to-toe with Nadal, finally giving indications that he was indeed ready to graduate for the big league now, after years of being claimed to have not been able to achieve his full potential. One would have expected him to fizzle out after losing that heartbreaking third set, but he battled on, fought for every point.
Nadal and Dimitrov have had a pretty lopsided rivalry, with the head to head reading 7-1 in Nadal's favour. But noticeably, Dimitrov won their most recent encounter, taking out Nadal in the quarter-finals in Beijing last October. But Dimitrov came into this match unbeaten and on a 10-match winning streak.
With Nadal having the weaker serve, it was an important toss for him to win & serve ahead in the set.
If the first game was anything to go by, this could have been a long day out for both the players, and it was. Dimitrov came out firing to earn himself two break points at 15-40, but Rafa upped his aggression to save both. After a few round of deuces, Nadal finally held for a 1-0 lead.
In contrast, Dimitrov held to love very quickly, serving back to back aces. Three trademark Nadal forehand winners meant that Nadal had his own sweet quick hold for a 2-1 lead.
Rafa's increasing confidence was on show in the next game itself, as he set up two break points for himself, by hitting his first backhand winner of the match. While Dimitrov saved the first one with an ace, Nadal took the second one by making Dimitrov pay for his premature foray to the net by hitting a forehand down the line passing shot. Rafa led 3-1.
And just as champions would do, he consolidated the break by holding to love, serving two clean aces along the way.
Serving to virtually to stay in the set at 1-4, Dimitrov used his first serve really well, forcing out short returns from Rafa, which he put away with consummate ease. The score read 4-2 in Nadal's favour.
A couple of routine holds for both players had Nadal serving for the set at 5-3. Rafa landed a lot of first serves, to help him dominate the points and finish them off at the net. The drop volley on set point, especially, was one that even Leander Paes would have been proud of.
Riding on his strong first serves, Dimitrov managed to hold serve comfortably for a 1-0 lead.
And then at 15-15 on the Nadal serve, these two played out, arguably, the point of the tournament. With Rafa on the offence, Dimitrov pushed his body to the limit, returning Nadal's whizzing ground strokes, from one corner of the court to the other.
But it proved to be a little too much for the Bulgarian in the end, as Nadal came out trumps on that point, and eventually on the game, as well. The score now read 1-1. Dimitrov then held serve rather comfortably to be up 2-1.
An extremely aggressive return game from Dimitrov had Nadal searching for answers. A time violation warning meted out to him, didn't help Nadal's cause either. As a result, he got broken to love to go down 3-1.
Nadal had a look at Dimitrov's serve in the next game itself but Dimitrov served himself out of trouble, after having been down 15-30. Suddenly. Nadal was now 4-1 down.
After holding serve, Nadal looked determined to get the set back on serve. After missing his first break point at 30-40, thanks to a huge Dimitrov first serve, Nadal earned himself another break point with a dazzling backhand down the line passing winner on the run. And succumbing to the pressure on the second break point, Dimitrov double-faulted, enabling Nadal to get the set back on serve.
Serving at 3-4, Nadal appeared to be able to hold the serve comfortably at 40-15, but a slew of uncharacteristic errors from the Spaniard’s racquet, including a double fault on break point, gave Grigor the chance to serve out the set at 5-3.
But a nervy service game, coupled with a few backhand errors, helped Nadal break serve again in this topsy-turvy set. Nadal would now serve at 4-5, hoping to hold serve and stay in the set. A marathon 10-minute game ensued. Nadal had to bring out every ounce of his fighting spirit to save four set points, one of them with an ace, to hold for 5-5.
After holding serve comfortably, Dimitrov showed the fight of a warrior to break Nadal's serve despite Rafa's best efforts, taking the set 7-5.
Both players maintained quality of their games in the third set as well. After a couple of love holds, Nadal had two break points on the Dimitrov serve, but Dimitrov saved both of them with some smart tennis.
Serving at 1-2 down, Nadal engaged Dimitrov in a lung-burst rally, holding serve for 2-2. Some good defensive tennis gave Rafa a break point, which he immediately converted, thanks to a Dimitrov backhand error.
Serving with a break up at 3-2, Nadal served a double fault to start the game. It was a sign of things to come in the game, as Nadal played loose to go down 15-40. But he promptly saved both of the break points with some great net-attacking tennis. He saved another one at Ad-out, but the next one proved to be a bit too much as he dumped a forehand crosscourt wide. The score read 3-3.
After a string of comfortable holds, Nadal found himself serving to stay in the set at 4-5. He managed to do so comfortably. At 5-6, Rafa did not let a slight halt in play derail his concentration, as he held to love to force a tiebreak.
After an early exchange of mini-breaks, Rafa raced ahead to a 3-1 lead, but Dimitrov managed to close that out. Then yet again, Nadal went ahead to secure a 5-3 lead, but Grigor dealt with that again with some gritty play.
At 5-5, two most important points in the match were to come up. And Rafa used all his experience to take the set 7-5 in the tiebreak.
The first few games of the fourth set saw a dip in quality, as both the players seemed to be making more unforced errors than usual. They were largely untroubled on serve though, holding easily.
But soon enough, both of them raised their level to the one they had attained in earlier sets, with first signs of it coming at 2-2, 40-15, where they played out the longest rally of the match, with Nadal finishing it off a stupendous backhand down the line passing winner.
Once the tempo of this set lifted, it was a treat to watch. Dimitrov served to stay in the match twice, at 4-5 and at 5-6, but seemed to be absolutely unfazed by the situation. With his first serve working like a charm, he held serve easily on both occasions.
In the tiebreak, Rafa went from being the aggressor to being the one who was just fighting to stay in the point. Dimitrov was seeing the ball like a football, and took the tiebreak 7-4, playing some gutsy tennis.
With both players as pumped up as ever, the match just soared to a different quality in this set. Nadal had a couple of break points itself, but Dimitrov saved both of them with some audacious tennis.
Dimitrov had a break point himself in the very next game, but Nadal was up to the task and saved it with some smart play. With the match crossing the four-hour mark, it was remarkable how these two managed to keep up such a high level of play.
Serving at 3-4 15-40, Nadal faced two virtual match points, but some clutch tennis saw him hold serve and roar in delight. It was almost inevitable that Dimitrov's serve was going to be broken in the next game, as Nadal looked like a man out on a mission.
And he did exactly that. Broke Dimitrov's serve. But Dimitrov did not give up. At 30-0 down on Nadal's serve, he gave it his all and even saved a couple of match points later with some daring tennis, but Rafa proved to be a bit too much for him in the end.