“It was a fantastic match. Very emotional. 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.”
The words above are from none other than Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard, usually not one to praise himself rather than only his opponent, could not deny the simple fact that Grigor Dimitrov and himself had both just delivered a four-hour, 56 minutes serving of exhilarating drama at one of the greatest stages in the tennis world.
Indeed, the crowd at Rod Laver Arena couldn’t have asked for more – especially not from Grigor Dimitrov. He lost the match, but won the hearts of fans in what John McEnroe described live on air to be “the match of his life”.
Dimitrov, in the time that followed the match’s conclusion, revealed that he replayed the contest several times, trying to figure out what he could have done differently to enforce an outcome in his favour.
Well, the Bulgarian should still be very proud, because this semifinal contest of the 2017 edition of the Australian Open wasn’t about what went wrong or what was missing, but rather what it contained.
Dimitrov, who was featured in only his second Grand Slam semifinal compared to Nadal’s 24 at the time, started sharp and immediately created two breakpoints on the Spaniard’s serve thanks to a blistering backhand down the line. Nadal got out of jail with a set of aggressive forehands and eventually held.
The tone was set for the night. The pattern of the 30-year-old’s whip-like forehands continued as he clinched the early break a few games later. While high-quality tennis filled with clean ball-striking was the theme early on, there wasn’t much drama attached to the outcome of this first set. On set point, at 5-3 40-15, Nadal approached the net with – you guessed it – a cross-court forehand, and put away a fine drop volley.
At 1-1 0-15 in the second, the tennis world got a reminder of why it’s so tremendously tricky to outmanoeuvre an in-form Nadal. Dimitrov blocked an excellent return towards his opponent’s backhand side, but Nadal danced around the ball and let a mind-boggling inside out forehand rip.
That was the start of a brilliant point that saw Dimitrov running from one side to the other until he couldn’t withstand Nadal’s offensive prowess any longer. Anyone witnessing that point might have wondered how on earth Dimitrov would be able to take one or two sets from Nadal, let alone win the match.
Luckily for Dimitrov, a match at the Grand Slam level takes many shapes and forms. With Nadal serving at 1-2, the Spaniard suddenly lost a spark of concentration. And when he hit his trademark inside out forehand wide for once, the Bulgarian got the break he had been longing for. That was just the start of both players gifting breaks to one another in the middle of the set.
At 4-5 Nadal saved four set points – one with an especially eye-catching forehand winner from several yards behind the baseline. However, Dimitrov, not one to cave in easily, was the prime reason that high-quality tennis and drama was combined for the first time of the night. Likely playing as well as he ever had right then and there, Dimitrov took command once again with Nadal serving at 5-6 and earned himself two new set points. The Spaniard finally succumbed to the pressure as he hit his backhand long. The players were tied at one set apiece: 6-3, 5-7!
The players continued to display an extremely high level of tennis from the get-go in the third set. The point at 1-2 40-30 in the highlight reel above is worth a look (or two)! Nadal got the first break of the set when Dimitrov’s defensive slice sailed long, but just like in the second set, the Spaniard gave a break back straight away.
Despite a few close games, the set headed towards a tiebreak, where Nadal proved to be fresher both mentally and physically. He was never behind in the score, even though he gifted two mini-breaks to his opponent.
At the endpoint of the third set’s conclusion, Dimitrov’s physical power and mental awareness seemed a distant memory compared to the end of the second set, and he eventually crumbled as he hit a poorly timed forehand into the net on set point. Nadal now held two sets to love lead: 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5).
When Rafael Nadal reaches the semifinal of a Grand Slam tournament, it means he’s playing some of his most exceptional tennis. He has only lost three times at that stage while winning an incredible 21.
Thus, when Nadal closed out the first game of the fourth set by turning defence to offence within the blink of an eye, it looked to many observers that the match would soon be done and dusted.
Not on Dimitrov’s watch though! The Bulgarian responded with a stunning point of his own, firing a backhand bullet down the line at 2-1 15-15 and showing, that by all means, he was still as competitive as ever in this encounter.
The 25-year-old began going after his backhand even more if that was possible. Nadal, naturally, had to spend more time retrieving balls from the corners as Dimitrov rarely missed. This was now a match of brilliant offensive shotmaking against the relentless retrieving of the greatest defender the game has ever seen. The question was; who was going to come out on top?
The superb tennis continued throughout this fourth set, but neither player managed to get the decisive break. A tiebreak was inevitable and duly ensued. Nadal hit a thumping forehand down the line to level to 2-2, but in the point immediately after that, Dimitrov got the mini-break with a deep return.
The Bulgarian got yet another mini-break, this time approaching the Nadal backhand, finishing the point with a volley into the open court. Leading 6-3 in the breaker, Dimitrov now had three set points to draw the score level at two sets apiece. He lost the first one while serve and volleying, but went back to business straight away with a clutch serve down the T that Nadal couldn’t handle: 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-7(4).
The match seemed to be on Dimitrov’s racquet as the fifth set got underway. Nadal, tactically astute, adapted on the spot. Suddenly, he took more chances by being more aggressive. There was only one problem: his opponent was playing just as aggressively, and just as brilliantly.
At 0-1 30-30 Dimitrov won one of the points of the match with a perfect backhand. Although both players would have chances in that first couple of games in the decider, neither of them managed to get the break that could potentially decide the match.
However, with Nadal serving at 3-4, Dimitrov rose to the occasion. At 3-4 15-30 the Bulgarian outplayed Nadal shot by shot and eventually fired away a smash that gave him two breakpoints. Was this the time? Would Nadal crumble or would he stand up and defend his fantastic semifinal record at Grand Slam tournaments?
If you’ve followed the Spaniard’s illustrious career, you pretty much know the answer! Nadal saved the breakpoints with a ridiculously clutch backhand winner down the line, and a brave volley. Realizing the importance of the points, Nadal clenched his fist and let out his biggest sign of emotion of the night. The 30-year-old went on to hold.
That game, ladies and gentlemen, proved to be decisive for the outcome of the match. From that point on it was all about Rafael Nadal.
He created his first break point of the set and didn’t wait to take advantage of it – Dimitrov could barely believe it as Nadal’s backhand flew past him! The Bulgarian, who had fought so well throughout this encounter, and without a doubt had played the best tennis of his life, suddenly found himself in a troubling position: Nadal would have the opportunity to serve for the match in the following game.
Dimitrov continued to fight valiantly and saved two match points. On the third one, however, his backhand sailed long. After nearly five hours of scintillating tennis, the match was finally over – and the victory was Nadal’s! He had won 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4.
The players exchanged a few heartfelt phrases at the net, but no words could reduce the disappointment and pain Dimitrov must have been feeling. For Nadal, there was only joy. The joy of coming through as the winner of yet another classic. The joy of reaching his first final at a Grand Slam tournament after two and a half years of failures and setbacks. The joy of getting to face his great rival Roger Federer on the biggest stage again – a match we’ll be learning more about in the coming days.
Follow the rest of this list as the countdown of the greatest Australian Open matches in history continues tomorrow.