Rafael Nadal fended off Grigor Dimitrov in five long sets to set up a vintage title match against Roger Federer at the Australian Open, where every singles finalist is in their 30s.
Nadal completed the 30-plus finals quartet Friday night when he beat Dimitrov 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4 in a grueling, 4-hour, 56-minute semifinal.
Federer, 35, and the Williams sisters — 36-year-old Venus and 35-year-old Serena — had clinched their spots in the finals on Throwback Thursday.
After clinching his 21st win in 24 major semifinals, the 30-year-old Nadal dropped to the court behind the baseline and lay face down for several seconds before getting up and embracing Dimitrov at the net.
His reward for the win is another duel with 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer, the only man with more major titles than he has. Federer’s lead is three, but Nadal has beaten the Swiss star in six of their eight major finals.
The Nadal-Dimitrov semifinal started in prime time Friday and finished at 12:45 a.m. Dimitrov, who had only beaten Nadal once in eight previous matches and was in a Grand Slam semifinal for only the second time, played the match of his life.
Nadal took some moments to commend Dimitrov after converting his third match point, pointing toward the 25-year-old Bulgarian and gesturing to the cheering crowd like a conductor acknowledging his orchestra.
“Grigor played great. I played great. So was a great quality of tennis,” he said. “So 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 he wasn’t entirely confident he could beat Dimitrov when he was deep into the deciding set after midnight and had to fend off breakpoints in the eighth game.
“Arrive 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 I lose, that’s it. Grigor deserves, too,'” he said. “I think both of us deserve to be in that final. Was a great fight. Finally was me. I feel lucky.”
Then he turned his attention to Sunday, and the match that transcends tennis.
“I feel that this rivalry is talked about outside the tennis world, and that is good for our sport,” Nadal said of the Federer match.
With Federer and Nadal both returning from injuries, and neither having won a major since mid-2014, a ninth Grand Slam final between two of the most dominant men in the sport was considered an extreme long shot at Melbourne Park.
Nadal, who had a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist after an up-and-down 2016 that started with a shocking first-round exit in Australia, was ranked No. 9.
Federer, off for six months with an injured left knee, was ranked No. 17.
Together, they’ve won 31 Grand Slam titles. Federer is aiming to extend his men’s record to 18. Nadal will be hoping to cut the gap and move into outright second on the all-time list by winning his 15th.
Federer loves tennis, and most likely would have been watching Friday night’s match at some point as a spectacle.
Nadal had to endure it, just as he did in the semifinals in 2009 when he edged Fernando Verdasco in a 5-hour, 14-minute thriller. He beat Federer in five in the final that year — his only title so far in Australia.
Against Dimitrov, dubbed `Baby Fed’ for the similarities he has with Federer’s style, Nadal showed signs of the brute strength and determination that carried him to the top of the rankings for 141 weeks in total from the day after winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — after spending 160 consecutive weeks at No. 2 behind Federer.
Dimitrov, who won the Brisbane International title earlier in the month, hit 20 aces, moved with precision, broke Nadal’s serve four times, and pounded the Spaniard with 79 winners.
In the end, he couldn’t break up the weekend party reserved for players over 30. It will be the first time in the Open era that all four singles finalists are older than 30.
Nadal leads Federer 23-11 in their career meetings, and is 9-2 in Grand Slam matches, including 6-2 in finals.
And despite winning four titles in Australia, Federer hasn’t beaten Nadal on Rod Laver Arena.
The Williams sisters practiced at Melbourne Park on Friday, the day ahead of the women’s final where Serena is aiming for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title.
Venus Williams hadn’t been to a major final since losing the 2009 Wimbledon final to her sister, and won the last of her seven Grand Slam titles the previous year in London.
The women’s doubles is already decided, with Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova combining for their second Australian title with a 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3 win over Andrea Hlavackova and Peng Shuai.