How Nadal turned back the clock—and Dimitrov—in a five-hour epic

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As Rafael Nadal said, this push-and-pull match could have gone either way. (AP) 

It was déjà vu all over again—and again, and again—for Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open on Friday night.

Here he was, after four-and-a-half hours, locked at 3-3 in the fifth set with Grigor Dimitrov in Rod Laver Arena. Both men were playing with a punch-drunk, half-staggered grace. One second it looked like they might fall over, and the next they were chasing a ball into the corner and curling a passing shot around their opponent for a winner. This is how it had gone for much of the first four, back-and-forth, push-and-pull sets. Extreme spins, acute angles, 100-m.p.h. ground strokes, stretch volleys and leaping overheads: Nadal and Dimitrov had exhausted the game’s possibilities, and themselves, in their effort to reach the Aussie Open final, but they were still all even. The commentators had run out of ways to say “unbelievable,” so they just kept repeating that word, three, four, five times each game. Dimitrov had hit 20 aces and 79 winners, while Nadal had countered with some of his best tennis in three years.

“I think Grigor played great,” Nadal said. “I played great. So [it] was [a] great quality of tennis tonight … I think both of us deserve to be in that final.”

We had seen Rafa star in this midnight—or 3:00 A.M.—movie more than once in Melbourne. In its sustained excellence and marathon length, the match with Dimitrov was a throwback to three classics from Nadal’s past: His five-set, five-hour win over Fernando Verdasco in the 2009 semifinals; his five-set, four-hour win over Roger Federer two nights later in the final; and his five-set, six-hour loss to Novak Djokovic in 2012. The question now was: Which of those matches was this one going to resemble in the end? Would the movie end in triumph or tragedy for Nadal or Dimitrov?

Through the first seven games of the fifth set, Nadal may have also had flashbacks to more recent, less glorious matches of his. At 2-2, he played aggressively to reach break point, only to tighten up and loop a nervous forehand long. When Dimitrov held, he was energized again. Nadal, by contrast, looked spent when he went down 15-40 on his serve at 3-4. One more point for Dimitrov and he would serve for it.

Now it was Nadal’s turn to pull the energy back to his side of the court and use it to attack. At 15-40, he took a backhand earlier than he usually does and hammered it for a winner. At 30-40, he followed a forehand to the net and knocked off a volley winner. Seemingly pleased with that play, he did it again, sending a high ball to Dimitrov’s one-handed backhand, ghosting in behind it to the net, and poking an easy forehand volley into the open court.

In his prime, Nadal reacted to adversity by stepping forward and taking the rallies into his own hands. In recent years, though, he hadn’t been able to come up with the shot he needed in those situations. His sudden, successful bursts to the net against Dimitrov turned back the clock on his career, and turned the match around. Before this tournament, he had played well, but hadn’t been rewarded with many big wins. Now he was coming in after beating Alexander Zverev and Milos Raonic, and the difference in his confidence showed.

“Just think I feel very happy to be part of this match, no?” Nadal said. “Arrive [at this] moment in the fifth set that, for sure, I wanted to win. I say to myself, ‘I am giving my best, I am playing very well.’ If that’s it, Grigor deserves [it], too.”

At 4-4, Nadal kept the momentum and reached break point. In that rally, he fought off a Dimitrov attack with a hooked forehand pass. Dimitrov popped up his next half-volley, and it landed short. As Nadal raced to put the ball away, his mind may have raced back to the 2012 final against Djokovic. Late in the fifth set, he had a similarly short backhand to essentially clinch the match, but he had pushed it wide. It may have been the most nightmare-inducing miss of Rafa’s career. This time he looked determined not to repeat it. Instead of sliding the ball up the line, he drilled it into the corner for a winner.

Over the course of five hours, neither player had led for long, so it was fitting that Dimitrov fought back and made the last game a seesaw, sea-sickening, shriek-producing, multiple-deuce affair. Dimitrov saved two match points—one with a jump-back smash—but on the third he sent a backhand just over the baseline. On that point, there was one more moment of déjà vu for Nadal. Dimitrov’s backhand landed in roughly the same spot that Federer’s errant forehand had landed on the last point of the 2009 final. That time, Rafa fell onto his back in celebration. This time he went face down.

“Just for me, is amazing to be through to a final of Grand Slam again, here in Australia at the first of the year,” Nadal said. “Means a lot to me. I feel the love of the people here. They give me a lot of positive energy.”

Dimitrov also felt that love as he walked off the court. In the tunnel to the locker room, he even mustered a grin when he crossed paths with an Aussie Open usher. If a Nadal-Federer final is the best news that men’s tennis could have had to start the year, the rise of a talent like Dimitrov isn’t far behind.

And maybe, someday, there will be a sense of Aussie Open déjà vu in it for him. As my friend, Chris Clarey, of The New York Times pointed out, Dimitrov’s defeat could end up resembling Stan Wawrinka’s five-set, five-hour loss to Novak Djokovic on the same court in 2013. It was the failure that finally convinced Stan he could succeed.

“I’m happy with a lot of things,” Dimitrov said. “I’m going to stay positive and keep my head up high … At least one thing I can say is that I left it all out on the court.”

He left it all out there this time, but Dimitrov will be back on that court, with more to give.

As Nadal said, this push-and-pull match could have gone either way; Rafa has been on the wrong end of a few five-setters recently, but this time he got in the last push.

“Was a great fight,” he said. “Finally it was me. I feel lucky … These kind of matches—even for the body—destroys your body, but that’s tennis. That’s special.”

The ghosts of Aussie Open classics have been raised, but one more awaits. A week before the NFL holds its Super Bowl, tennis will host a throwback party that’s worthy of Roman numerals, too: Nadal-Federer XXXV.

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