Rafael Nadal yesterday completed a remarkable journey from pre-tournament tears to Australian Open finalist after a stunning victory over Roger Federer.
Nadal was almost forced out of the event before it had even started after hurting his knee when sitting on a chair at his hotel but now stands on the brink of an 11th grand slam crown.
His win over Federer was a victory for persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Having been overwhelmed early on, he gradually worked his way back into a contest which developed into another classic between two of the game’s greatest players to finally prevail 6-7 (5/7) 6-3 7-6 (7/5) 6-4.
“On the Sunday afternoon, 24 hours before I was due to play my first match, I was in the room crying because I believed I didn’t have the chance to play in Melbourne,” said Nadal, who will meet either Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final.
“It was a very, very tough situation for me in those hours. Two weeks later I am here in the final. It is a dream for me. I have been in the last four grand slam finals now which is a great effort.”
Federer was gracious in defeat despite his record against Nadal slipping to nine wins from 27 encounters.
“I thought Rafa played well from start to finish,” he said. “I played well myself and it (the first) was a big set for me to win.
“I missed maybe chances in some of the sets but Rafa did well to hang in there. It was a tough match to play but it’s only the beginning of the season and I feel all right.”
In the first three games, Federer was brilliant, displaying the confidence of a man who had not dropped a set in the tournament.
But, quite unexpectedly, his momentum stalled when three shanked groundstrokes gifted Nadal a break back. He regrouped to edge a nervy tie-break.
The crucial moment in the second set came in the sixth game when Nadal broke thanks to a stunning cross-court winner.
The 10-times grand slam winner held for 5-2 before the match was suspended for 10 minutes for a nearby firework display to celebrate Australia Day. When they returned, Federer’s game deserted him.
Nadal broke again to take the set and then held to love. He raced to 0-40 on Federer’s serve, but his opponent dragged it back to deuce before making it 1-1.
“It wasn’t helpful,” admitted Federer on the interruption. “But even though I lost a lot of points in a row I was already down in the set. The important thing was to get back from 0-40.”
The Swiss remained on the front foot by breaking only to toss the advantage away again as Nadal hit back for 4-4.
It went to another breaker which Nadal claimed despite Federer saving four set points from 6-1.
If the first three sets were good, the level moved up a notch in the fourth with the two men playing at their maximum.
Nadal broke at 4-4 to give himself the chance to serve for the match, which he did successfully despite Federer’s refusal to lie down.
Azarenka finally in control of emotions
Victoria Azarenka was delighted to display a new-found resolve by reaching the Australian Open final.
The Belarusian has long been regarded as one of the most talented players on tour but her fragility at key moments would often come to the surface, leading to meltdowns and tears.
But her stunning three-set defeat of Kim Clijsters which moved her into her first grand slam final suggested a mental fortitude she is likely to need to call on once again in tomorrow’s title-decider against Maria Sharapova.
“I don’t know if it’s the toughest match of my career, but it’s one of the most emotional,” she said.
“I think every single person has experienced nerves but it’s how you deal with it. You just have to control it.
“I think before you all thought I was a mental case but I am just young and emotional.”
Defending champion Clijsters, on what could have been her last appearance Down Under as she is due to retire at the end of the season, fought hard but Azarenka’s bludgeoning ground strokes powered her to a 6-4 1-6 6-3 triumph.
The final tomorrow will not only be for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup but also the No 1 ranking.
Petra Kvitova was another in contention for top spot but her defeat to Sharapova means she will have to wait a little longer.
For Sharapova, the 6-2 3-6 6-4 victory was particularly sweet after her defeat to the Czech in the Wimbledon final last July.
“I felt in the third set she had the advantage because I was always down on my serve,” said Sharapova.
“I thought I had to hit it and not let her finish the points the way she likes to.
“I just hung in there and got a few returns in in that final game; perhaps that was the key.”