MELBOURNE (Reuters): Rafa Nadal fought back to topple great rival Roger Federer 6-7 6-2 7-6 6-4 in an enthralling Australian Open semi-final of the highest quality on Thursday.
Like so many of their battles over the years, the 27th meeting was a feast of shot-making, with exhilaration and suspense served up in equal measure under the lights of a packed Rod Laver Arena.
|Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates winning a point against Roger Federer of Switzerland during their men’s singles semi-final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. REUTERS
Amid an atmosphere more akin to a football match, Nadal’s brute force triumphed over the Swiss’s artistry as he captured the decisive break at 4-4 in the fourth set and closed it out on the second match point when Federer blasted a forehand long.
With raucous cheers ringing from the stands, the Spaniard slid out on to the blue centre court on his knees and leaned back to gaze at the night sky.
“It’s always a pleasure being on this court,” the world number two said in a courtside interview after setting up a final against top seed Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray.
“It’s an honour to play Roger. It was a fantastic match.
“It’s just amazing to have one player in front of you who has no mistakes and a totally complete game.”
Third seed Federer, just shaded on a night of high drama, had his chances to overhaul the Spaniard in the tension-charged fourth set but missed a break point when leading 4-3 and another two as Nadal served out the match.
The loss was Federer’s second to Nadal on Rod Laver Arena, where he wept bitter tears after losing a five-set classic for the 2009 title.
It also extended his losing record against Nadal to 18-9, with eight defeats in their 10 grand slam matches, a rivalry only matched in the majors by John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl in the 1980s.
The match, played out in front of a capacity crowd of 15,000 and more than a thousand outdoors glued to big screens nearby, was a classic of breathless rallies and sweetly-struck winners that more than lived up to the hype.
Nadal, dogged by injury doubts throughout the tournament, went bouncing to the back of the court like a prize-fighter at the start, but it was Federer landing all the early punches as he broke immediately with a bludgeoned crosscourt backhand to race to 3-0.
The Swiss maestro allowed Nadal to break back, but reasserted control in the tiebreak where even his fans had the edge. At 2-1 down, a girl in the crowd yelled “I love you Rafa!”, to which a man responded “I love you more Roger!”
Federer closed out the set after stroking a sublime backhand drop-volley from his shoelaces, but Nadal raised his game to a new level. At 3-2 in the second set, darting to his left to retrieve a volley, Nadal smacked an improbable cross-court passing shot to earn three break points.
He took the break on the third, repeating the trick with his backhand and celebrating with a blood-curdling roar.
Fireworks over Melbourne to celebrate the Australia Day national holiday provided Federer with a few minutes’ respite but did nothing to halt Nadal’s charge as he broke Federer to love to level at one-set all.
The Swiss dragged Nadal into a dogfight in the third, with each player holding serve grimly to a second tiebreak.
Federer was the first to blink as he netted a forehand - his 49th unforced error - to give Nadal five set points and though the Swiss saved four, he surrendered the set when overwhelmed by a rushing forehand in the corner.
More drama was to come as Federer profited from a fateful net cord that raised break point when leading 4-3.
With tension reaching breaking point, Federer whirled around on his forehand and blasted toward the line. It missed and Nadal slammed the door shut with a forehand down the line.
Nadal made him pay, breaking serve in the next game and then saving two break points when serving for the match.
The pressure told as Federer bowed out blasting a pair of unforced errors.
“You look at that I haven’t lost in five months or something,” he said. “It’s not that bad. Don’t feel too sorry for me.
“Obviously I would have loved to have come through and, you know, gotten a crack, a chance at winning the title here again.
“Clearly I’m disappointed. But then again, (what’s) important is the reaction from now ... Where do I go from here? You know, start planning other trips.
“Start planning the preparations, and again, have a good reaction like I showed after the U.S. Open.”