By John Pye
MELBOURNE, Australia: The way Rafael Nadal managed to somehow retrieve a forehand midway through the second set shocked even Roger Federer, who has been on the receiving end of the Spaniard’s unbelievable shots more than anyone else in Grand Slams.
It was a tipping point in their Australian Open semifinal. Federer had lost the first-set tiebreaker but was still throwing his whole arsenal at Nadal.
At 15-30 in the sixth game of the second set, Federer thought he’d wrong-footed Nadal with a volley deep into the left corner. Nadal lunged for a desperate forehand, swinging just as the ball was about to bounce for the second time and angling it back over the net. Federer, in good position but not expecting he’d need to play another shot, framed a volley. It gave Nadal a breakpoint, and he quickly broke Federer for the first time in the match.
He completed his 23rd win in 33 head-to-heads — ninth in 11 Grand Slam matches — 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in 2 hours and 24 minutes against the 17-time major winner.
A win over another Swiss, No. 8-seeded Stan Wawrinka, in Sunday’s final, would give Nadal a 14th Grand Slam title and make him the first man to win all four majors at least twice in the Open era.
Nadal missed the 2013 Australian Open during a seven-month layoff for illness and a knee injury, but returned to win the French and U.S. Opens among his 10 titles for the season and finished the year at No. 1. He won the Australian Open in 2009, beating Federer in the final, and lost in a five-set, 5-hour, 53-minute 2012 final to Novak Djokovic after ousting Federer in the semis. In other years, he’s struggled with injuries — it’s the only Grand Slam tournament he hasn’t won at least twice.
“It’s really, really emotional for me to be back on this court, and to be able to play another final — tonight I played the best match of the tournament,” he said, elaborating later: “Very emotional moments in the Rod Laver Arena in the past, very emotional moments this year especially because [this] is the Grand Slam that I really had more problems in my career.”
Injuries kept him out of the 2006 Australian Open and hampered his progress in the 2010 and ’11 quarterfinals.
“Lot of years I didn’t have a chance to play in this tournament that I really love so much with the perfect conditions,” he said. “So is very special have the chance to be in the final here again.”
By reaching his first major final with a win over Tomas Berdych on Thursday night, Wawrinka ensured he’d replace Federer as Switzerland’s highest-ranked player for the first time.
But Federer, 32, is confident of returning to his old winning ways, expecting some coaching from Stefan Edberg and continued improvement in his fitness to help after a slump in 2013, when he didn’t reach any of the major finals for the first time in 11 years.
“I still think my best tennis is only ahead of me now,” he said.
Nadal is now second on the list of players reaching Grand Slam finals, joining Ivan Lendl on 19 — Federer leads the list with 24. Another Grand Slam title would lift Nadal to equal second on the all-time list with Pete Sampras, who was in the crowd for the match.
Nadal has struggled with a blister on the palm of his left hand in his last two matches, but he removed the heavy tape that affected his serve in his quarterfinal win over Grigor Dimitrov and replaced it with one square of adhesive tape.
“The blister is OK,” Nadal said. “The problem ... is the position of the blister, it’s difficult.” But, he added, he didn’t feel any pain.
Li Na will be hoping for third time lucky in the women’s final early today against Dominika Cibulkova. The 2011 French Open champion has reached the Australian Open final in three of the past four years, but is yet to win the title.