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?