MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal is within one victory of a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title.
The 35-year-old Spaniard advanced to the Australian Open final for the sixth time with a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win over seventh-seeded Matteo Berrettini on Friday.
He’ll have to beat U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev on Sunday to make history. And Medvedev is chasing a piece of history of his own after reeling off the last five games to defeat Stefanos Tsitispas 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in a heated semifinal. He’s aiming to be the first man in the Open era to win his second Grand Slam title at the next major tournament.
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The second-seeded Medvedev has had an emotional and challenging run to back-to-back Australian Open finals. He had to deal with a hostile crowd in his second-round win over Nick Kyrgios, had to save a match point and rally from two sets down to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime in a nearly five-hour quarterfinal win, and had to regain his composure after an angry outburst at the umpire on Friday.
He yelled at chair umpire Jaume Campistol after dropping serve in the second set, demanding that Tsitsipas be cautioned for receiving coaching from his father in the crowd. He took a five-minute break after dropping the set, took control late in the third set and then dominated the last five games after Tsitsipas was eventually cautioned for getting coaching from the stands.
Nadal’s run to a 29th Grand Slam final has been comparatively serene.
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After the last point, he stopped, beamed a wide grin and then punched the air three times.
Nadal arrived in Australia not knowing how long he would last after months off the tour dealing with a serious foot injury and then a bout of COVID-19. He skipped Wimbledon after losing in the French Open semifinals to Novak Djokovic, and didn’t play at all after August.
“Every day has been an issue in terms of problems on the foot. Doubts still here … probably for the rest of my career because I have what I have and that’s something that we cannot fix,” Nadal said. “But for me it’s amazing … (to) just compete and play tennis at the high level again, facing the most important players of the world.”
Last month, he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to return to the tour. But he won a tune-up tournament in Melbourne to start 2022 and has taken six straight matches at the first Grand Slam event of the year.
One more and he’ll break the record of 20 major championships he shares with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Nadal would also become just the fourth man to win all four Grand Slam titles at least twice.
Nadal’s win over Wimbledon runner-up Berrettini, under a closed roof at Rod Laver Arena because of heavy rain, was his 500th on hard courts at tour level. He’s only won the Australian Open once, in 2009.
Adding a second was his lone focus after yet another semifinal win.
“For me, it’s all about the Australian Open more than anything else,” Nadal said in his on-court TV interview. “I have been a little unlucky (here) in my career with some injuries. I played some amazing finals with good chances.”
He lost classic five-set finals at Melbourne Park to Djokovic in 2012 and Federer in 2017. Nadal lost in four sets to Stan Wawrinka in 2014 and had a straight-set defeat against Djokovic three years ago.
“I feel very lucky that I won once,” he said. “I never thought about another chance in 2022.”
Nadal broke Berrettini’s opening service games in the first two sets and, after dropping the third set on a rare service lapse, he rallied to finish off the match in just under three hours. That in itself was a relief after his long five-set win over Denis Shapovalov two days earlier in the quarterfinals.
Nadal was the only member of the so-called Big Three who had a chance to break the deadlock in Australia this time.
Federer missed the tournament to continue his recovery from knee surgery. Djokovic, who has won nine of his Grand Slam titles at Melbourne Park, was deported after an 11-day visa saga on the eve of the tournament because he failed to meet Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
“To be able to be where I am today, I don’t know, I really can’t explain in words how important is for me in terms of energy, in terms of personal satisfaction, in terms of being very thankful,” Nadal said. “For me it’s something completely unexpected, so I am super happy.
“For me, it’s a present, just be here and play tennis.”
He said he was taking a different approach to his preparations, but couldn’t really change his approach on court.
“I am taking now the things a little bit in a different way. Of course always with competitive spirit that I have, because I can’t go against that. It’s my personal DNA,” he said. “But in some way, I don’t know, just be what I am and be able to have the chance to compete at this level, it’s a positive energy for me to keep going.”
Medevedev will need to take a calmer approach after beating Tsitsipas in the semifinals for the second year in a row at Melbourne Park. He lost to Djokovic in last year’s final, but then beat the No. 1-ranked player for the U.S. Open title.
“I’m going to play again against one of the greatest,” Medvedev said of Sunday’s final. “Again, I’m going to play somebody going for the 21st Slam. I’m ready.”