Rafael Nadal keeps proving me wrong. A week ago he looked dead and buried after barely scraping past Alexander Zverev in the third round at the Australian Open.
I still think had Zverev not succumbed to cramps, he would have finished off Rafa. But he couldn’t, and nor could Gael Monfils or Milos Raonic. And that brought us to last night.
Nadal won the match, that wasn’t much of a surprise. But it was incredible the way he did it.
I said going in, Rafa would need to serve well and hit the forehand with power and with depth, and he did both. But Dimitrov was also on his game. And it turned out to be a hell of a tennis match, won by Nadal 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 in just under five pulsating hours.
Dimitrov’s backhand held up firm against the constant barrage from Rafa, who was playing the same game he would against Roger Federer (why not!). And early on Rafa was getting the better of the exchange grabbing an early break and riding out the set with the help of some great serving.
In the second set, Dimitrov started to get teeth into the match. He went up a break twice but only to give them back. Dimitrov was now hitting winners off the backhand and flying around the court with reckless abandon. These were long, physical points at times and had Nadal taken the second, it would have finished in three. But Dimitrov proved resilient, earning a final break to take the set and the crowd erupted, Dimitrov erupted. We had a match. Did we ever.
It was 1-all heading to the third, a best-of-3 situation. Almost two hours in. Both guys in full flight. But Nadal’s early break put a damper on the Dimitrov camp. Would that seal it? No. Dimitrov fought right back, leveled and then two served their way to a tiebreak where it was Nadal the stronger player again.
To the fourth we went, and would we have another collapse from Grigor like in the 2014 quarterfinal? Nope. This time he kept chugging, now going past the three hour mark. Still ripping backhands, forehands and aces, getting closer to Nadal when the points went longer. Grigor seemed to be getting better! Nadal maybe was wearing down. With the two on even footing, to a breaker we went and this time Grigor jumped ahead early and forced the decider.
Almost four hours in and with no potty breaks, no trainer visits, no shenanigans, the decider began with Grigor serving first. Nadal got an early look at break chances but couldn’t convert. Playing from behind, the Nadal’s serve was under constant pressure, but Rafa did well, very well, fighting through it. Things were getting tense – this was no Karlovic/Isner serving fest, this was going to end soon – and sure enough Dimitrov had the match in sight. Serving 3-4, 15-40 and teetering, Rafa came up with the championship goods. He then broke to the crowds’ approval and finally on his third match point he was down on the court in celebration.
The old Rafa was back.
What a match! First, as I said Rafa played great. Served great, forehand was strong, though he missed a few easy ones, and his backhand was terrific. And I loved his net play, especially down those break points late in the fifth. That was clutch, that was gutsy and that showed Dimitrov what championship tennis is.
“It was a fantastic match. Very emotional,” said Nadal. “I think Grigor played great. I played great. So was a great quality of tennis tonight. For me, it is amazing to be through to a final of a Grand Slam again here in Australia at the start of the year. Means a lot to me. I feel the love of the people here. They give me a lot of positive energy.
“I feel very happy to be part of this match. There was a moment in the fifth set that for sure I wanted to win. I said to myself, ‘I am giving my best, I am playing very well. If I lose, that’s it. Grigor deserves it, too.’ I think both of us deserved to be in that final. It was a great fight. Finally was me. I feel lucky. I am very happy for that.”
As for Dimitrov, he showed when he’s got his head on right, he can compete with the best. Can coach Vallverdu get him to that next level? We’ll see. The game is there, we know that. It’s just mentally can he win it.
“It’s never easy to lose a match like that. I’m happy, though, with a lot of things. I’m going to stay positive and keep my head up high,” said Dimitrov. “Rafa deserves all the credit right now since he’s such a fighter, such a competitor. It was an honor for me to play a match like that against him. It also shows me that I’m on the right path.”
So Rafa is healthy again. Knees are good. The wrist is not an issue and even though he played for five hours, he gets a day off before the showdown Sunday against one Roger Federer. And like that, he’s back! Vamos!
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