Nadal holds off ‘Baby Fed,’ sets up classic final vs. Federer
MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal took five sets and almost five hours to fend off “Baby Fed” and revive a classic Grand Slam final against the one-and-only Roger Federer.
Nadal’s 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4 win over Grigor Dimitrov in a grueling, 4-hour, 56-minute semifinal match sets up a championship weekend at the Australian Open like no other, with every singles finalist in their 30s.
The all-Williams women’s final Saturday features the record-chasing Serena against Venus — the first decider between the sisters at a major since 2009. The Roger-Rafa final will be Sunday — their first meeting in an Australian Open title match since Nadal won in 2009.
The unexpected pairings already has generated hype that transcends the sport.
“I feel that this rivalry is talked about outside the tennis world, and that is good for our sport,” Nadal said of his ninth Grand Slam final against the 17-time major champion.
The 35-year-old Federer and the Williams sisters — Serena is 35, a year younger than Venus — had already clinched their finals spots on Throwback Thursday.
Nadal completed the 30-plus quartet in a match that started in local prime time Friday and finished at 12:45 a.m. Dimitrov, who had only beaten Nadal once in eight previous matches and was in a Grand Slam semifinal for only the second time, played the match of his life.
He had two break point chances in the eighth game of the fifth set, but Nadal’s experience of winning 14 major titles kicked in. He held, then converted his first break point of the set in the next game with a booming backhand winner down the line.
After clinching the win on his third match point, the 30-year-old Nadal dropped to his knees, then onto his stomach and lay face down face down for several seconds before getting up and embracing Dimitrov at the net.
Nadal held up his arms triumphantly, then pointed toward the 25-year-old Bulgarian, gesturing to the cheering crowd just as a conductor would to acknowledge his orchestra.
“Grigor played great. I played great. So was a great quality of tennis,” Nadal said. “So just for me, is amazing to be through to a final of Grand Slam again here in Australia at the first of the year.”
Against Dimitrov, dubbed “Baby Fed” for the similarities he has with Federer’s style and his seemingly effortless one-handed backhand, Nadal showed signs of the brute strength and determination that carried him to the top of the rankings for 141 weeks in total from 2008 — after spending 160 consecutive weeks at No. 2 behind Federer.
Dimitrov, who won the Brisbane International title earlier in the month, hit 20 aces, moved with precision, broke Nadal’s serve four times, and pounded the Spaniard with 79 winners.
Even Nadal wasn’t entirely confident he could beat Dimitrov when he was deep into the deciding set.
“Arrive moment ... I say to myself, ‘I am giving my best, I am playing very well. If I lose, that’s it. Grigor deserves, too,’” he said. “I think both of us deserve to be in that final. Was a great fight. Finally was me. I feel lucky.”
With Federer and Nadal both returning from injuries, and neither having won a major since mid-2014, a ninth Grand Slam final between two of the most dominant men in the sport was considered an extreme long shot at Melbourne Park.
Nadal, who had a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist after an up-and-down 2016 that started with a shocking first-round exit in Australia, was ranked No. 9.
He reached a low point, he admitted, after having to withdraw from the French Open, where he has won nine of his 14 major titles.
“I remember myself crying on the car coming back to hotel,” Nadal said. “That was a tough moment.”
Federer, off for six months with an injured left knee, was ranked No. 17. He reached the semifinals in Australia and Wimbledon last year, but didn’t play the other majors.
He hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2012, has an 11-23 record at tour-level against Nadal, and has only won two of the eight major finals he’s played against the left-handed Spaniard.
But Federer got the night off Friday while Nadal had to endure it, just as he did in the semifinals in 2009 when he edged Fernando Verdasco in a 5-hour, 14-minute thriller. He went on to beat Federer in the final that year — his only title so far in Australia.
After doing his best to stand in the way of the Roger-Rafa rematch, Dimitrov figured there was a benefit to losing.
“I just know that two of the greatest players of tennis are going to square off, and it’s going to be (an) amazing match,” the Bulgarian said.
And despite not being able to break up the weekend party reserved for players over 30 — it will be the first major in the Open era where all four singles finalists are 30 or older — Dimitrov plans to see some history being made.
“Of course, everyone is going to see that final now,” he said, “including me.”