MATCH POINT: Rafael Nadal (ESP) def. Matteo Berrettini (ITA) in the 2022 Australian Open semifinal.

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Less than two months ago, Rafael Nadal wasn’t sure if he would be able to play professional-level tennis again. Now, he’s one win away from possibly rewriting the tennis history books after racing past No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini in four sets to reach his sixth Australian Open final.

The 2009 champion said he was completely “destroyed” after his marathon, five-set quarterfinal against Denis Shapovalov two days ago. But today, it was Nadal who was doing the destroying across the first two sets, and he overcame a third-set dip to defeat Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Nadal is now just one victory away from claiming sole ownership of the all-time record for most Grand Slam men’s singles titles, breaking his three-way tie with rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at 20. He awaits either the reigning US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who reached the Melbourne final last year, or No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.

“For me it’s all about the Australian Open more than anything else,” Nadal told Jim Courier after the match. “I have been a little bit lucky [here] in my career with some injuries. At times I played good finals against Novak in 2012 and Roger in 2017.

“I was lucky to win once in 2009, but I never thought about another chance in 2022. [I will] just enjoy the victory today and after that try my best.”

Nadal improved to 9-0 on the season after his semifinal victory over Berrettini.

Nadal improved to 9-0 on the season after his semifinal victory over Berrettini.

A place in a Grand Slam final—or even on a tennis court at all—seemed out of reach after the 35-year-old’s season was cut short last September due to a flare-up of his chronic left foot injury. Nadal defied the odds by returning to the tennis courts in December, but that’s when bad luck struck and he was waylaid again, this time by a breakthrough case of COVID-19 that left him bedridden with a fever.

Nadal arrived in Melbourne short on preparation and with modest expectations for a Grand Slam that has frequently eluded him. But as the weeks and matches have unfolded, he has blown past all those expectations—and his opponents—to win his ninth match in a row against Berrettini on Friday.

No. 6 seed Nadal rarely put a foot wrong throughout two dominant sets, but he found himself tested in the third and fourth sets as Berrettini jolted to life in the second half of the match.

The pair were playing under the roof on Rod Laver Arena due to the rainy weather in Melbourne, which has never been Nadal’s favorite playing conditions—he has only one indoor hardcourt title, and that came 17 years ago at the Madrid Masters. The heavy conditions usually wreak havoc on Nadal’s topspin, not allowing the ball to bounce as high as it normally would.

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“Everybody knows I am more an outdoor player than indoor player,” Nadal admitted in his post-match interview. “I knew before the match that the roof is going to be closed… A month and a half [ago] I didn’t know if I was going to play tennis. It doesn’t matter if it is outdoors or indoors today, I just wanted to play and do my best.”

For the first two sets, the Italian, who was seeking his second Grand Slam final appearance, struggled to make an impact in Nadal’s service games and never reached a break point. In turn, Nadal pounced on Berrettini’s vulnerable second serve—the Italian won just two of 13 points there—and targeted the Berrettini backhand.

Down two sets, Berrettini started swinging more freely in the third—which has typically been where Nadal’s energy levels take a dip. Nadal has lost the third set in all three matches where he’s been taken the distance this fortnight, and each time from a two-sets-to-love lead.

A late break of serve at 5-3 in the third set suddenly put Berrettini back in contention. He cleaned up his unforced errors and raised his level on serve as they contested the fourth, but his comeback efforts were too little too late. Nadal wrestled back the match and sealed his spot in the Australian Open final after Berrettini buried an unforced error into the net.