Rafael Nadal set up a much-anticipated Australian Open final against old rival Roger Federer with an epic, five-set semi-final win over Grigor Dimitrov.
The Spaniard won 6-3 5-7 7-6 (7-5) 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 in almost five hours to reach a first Grand Slam final since 2014.
Dimitrov’s wait to reach a maiden Slam final continues after Nadal, 30, inflicted his first defeat of the year.
Nadal, who is attempting to win a 15th major title, will face Swiss rival Federer, 35, in Melbourne on Sunday.
“I never dreamed to be back in the final of the Australian Open,” said Nadal.
“It is a very special thing for both of us to be playing again in a major final. Neither of us probably thought we would be here again.”
He will meet Federer, who needed five sets to beat compatriot Stan Wawrinka in Thursday’s first semi-final, in Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena at 08:30 GMT.
As well as an extra day’s rest, 17-time Grand Slam winner Federer spent almost two hours less on court than Nadal during his semi-final, having beaten Wawrinka in a comparatively quick three hours and five minutes.
Twenty four hours later, both Nadal and Dimitrov showed incredible endurance in a match during which neither man looked like wilting.
Eventually the 25-year-old Bulgarian buckled first – losing his serve at 4-4 in the deciding set – as Nadal wrapped up victory with his third match point at almost 00:45 local time.
Nadal dropped to his knees at the baseline in celebration, bringing a charged Rod Laver Arena to its feet, when Dimitrov sent a forehand long.
His victory means all four singles finalists are aged 30 or over, with 35-year-old Serena Williams meeting sister Venus, 36, in the women’s final on Saturday.
Melbourne ready for ‘Fedal’ final
Much of the talk before Friday’s second semi-final centred around the prospect of Nadal meeting Federer for the ninth time in a Grand Slam final.
The pair dominated the men’s game between 2004 and 2010, before Novak Djokovic’s emergence, and have provided many memorable duels over the past 13 years.
However, few would have suggested a fortnight ago they would be reunited in the first major final of 2017.
Federer is making his competitive return in Melbourne after six months out with a knee injury, while Nadal has also struggled with form and injury over the past couple of years.
But both men have disproved the notion the combination of ageing bodies and physical problems would prevent them from challenging again for major honours.
Nadal showed few signs of fatigue in his marathon win against Dimitrov, just as Federer did not when he overcame compatriot Wawrinka in Thursday’s semi-final.
Now they have been rewarded with their first Slam showpiece since the French Open in 2011.
Many positives in defeat for Dimitrov
Dimitrov received a standing ovation as he left the Rod Laver Arena, though it was probably scant consolation after failing to become the first Bulgarian to reach a major final.
Once dubbed ‘Baby Fed’ for his similarity in playing style to Federer, he showed enough against Nadal to suggest he will end that unwanted record soon.
However, it is difficult to pinpoint what more he could have done.
Dimitrov showed he has the tools needed to compete with the best players – thumping down 20 aces to Nadal’s eight, cracking 79 winners to Nadal’s 45 and showing extraordinary defensive resilience.
It was still too little against an inspired Nadal.
The Spaniard showed remarkable physical and mental strength to overcome Dimitrov and is now one win away from becoming the first man to win the double career Grand Slam in the Open era.
How the drama unfolded
American great John McEnroe said Nadal’s win over Dimitrov was one of the best matches he had ever seen, while two-time Australian Open finalist Pat Cash described it as a “rollercoaster”.
Breaks of serve, swings of momentum all over the place. Here’s how the memorable match unfolded:
First set – Nadal wins 6-3
- Nadal saving two break points in the first game is an indication of the drama ahead
- He goes on to break Dimitrov in game four, one lapse of concentration proving costly as Nadal serves out to win the opener in 35 minutes
Second set – Dimitrov wins 7-5
- Nadal is given a time violation in game three after exceeding 20 seconds between service points
- He then loses focus – and his serve – on the way to the pair twice exchanging breaks
- Nadal saves four set points to level at 5-5, only for Dimitrov to pounce at the first opportunity in game 12
Third set – Nadal wins 7-6 (7-5)
- Dimitrov survives two break points – including a fortuitous double bounce off the net cord – to hold at 2-1, but breaks are exchanged in the fifth and sixth games
- A five-minute delay at the start of the 12th game, after a member of the crowd receives medical attention, precedes Nadal holding for the tie-break
- Dimitrov wrongly challenges an out call at 5-5 in the tie-break, Nadal serving out to win the set
Fourth set – Dimitrov wins 7-6 (7-3)
- Both players finally dominate their service games, each holding without having to face a single break point
- Nadal’s serve cracks as Dimitrov goes 3-2 up in the tie-break, the Bulgarian taking the second of two set points
Fifth set – Nadal wins 6-4
- Nadal cannot convert three break points in the opening game
- Nadal saves two break points in the eighth game, breaking in the ninth – following 27 successive holds of serve – after help from a Dimitrov double fault for 0-30
- Dimitrov takes Nadal to deuce in what turns out to be the final game, surviving two match points before hitting the third long