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History beckons: Nadal advances into decider

  • Dan Imhoff

Rafael Nadal had barely raised a sweat en route to his sixth Australian Open final on Friday before his destructive ways inadvertently spilled beyond the blows he was inflicting on Matteo Berrettini.

Beneath a closed Rod Laver Arena roof, the Spaniard had opened up an early lead in his 36th major semifinal after hammering "The Hammer's" less-potent double-fisted backhand.

MORE: Men's singles results AO 2022

Only 15 minutes into his 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 triumph and in drastically cooler conditions than his heat-stroke-defying win over Denis Shapovalov in the quarterfinals, Nadal managed to dismantle an air-conditioning hose at the change of ends.

Fortunately, for a man who's carved out a reputation for working things out alone on court, nothing was beyond the 35-year-old on this stormy summer's afternoon.

Mr Fix-It quickly turned his hand to dismantling a late-surging opponent.

"As everybody knows I'm more an outdoor than an indoor player but I enjoy a lot the atmosphere so I can't complain at all," Nadal said.

"I knew before the match that the roof was going to be closed, but you know what? For a month-and-a-half I did not know if I was going to be able to play tennis so it did not matter if it's outdoor or indoor today, I just wanted to enjoy it."

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In the process, Nadal landed his first triumph over a top 10 opponent since Milos Raonic succumbed to him on Rod Laver Arena in the quarterfinals five years ago.

He becomes the fourth-oldest man in the Open Era to reach the Australian Open final, where he awaits second seed Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas for his second title.

"I went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light there, but still working and still receiving plenty of support from my team and from my family, too, without a doubt," Nadal said.

"Yeah, I mean, a lot of conversations with the team, with the family about what can happen or what's gonna happen if the things continue like this, thinking that maybe is a chance to say goodbye.

"That was not a lot of months ago. 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."

Berrettini had been a pillar of consistency at the majors, having won his past 21 matches against all opponents other than Novak Djokovic.

For a player who would need to rely so heavily on his serve, there were troubling signs early for the Italian when he was broken for 2-0.

The Spaniard was dominating from the off on his heavy crosscourt forehand, exposing the sixth seed's double-handed backhand.

While Berrettini's slice backhand had served him well en route to his maiden Grand Slam final at Wimbledon last year, it was a dangerous ploy on Rod Laver Arena against an opponent who thrived on the extra time it afforded him to pull the trigger.

A reminder of why the Roman earned the nickname "The Hammer" came on set point down when he flattened a forehand winner on the run.

But such counterattacks were all too fleeting against a champion growing in dominance as the match wore on.

There was a grimace of despair skywards from the Italian after being dragged every which way before a botched backhand slice surrendered a 4-0 lead in the second set.

Eighty-seven minutes into the contest and Nadal had opened up a commanding two-set advantage.

Berrettini won the third set, but the damage was already done

The omen was ominous for his opponent.

Of the 20 times the Spaniard had held a two-set lead in a Grand Slam semifinal, he had never gone on to lose.

Berrettini was going to give it a red-hot crack and when he unleashed a 138km/h forehand on the run he landed his first break of the match for 5-3.

Four huge serves and in the blink of an eye he was back in it.

The pair had come through similar quarterfinal battles – both having held two-set leads, only to dip before wresting momentum back again in a deciding set.

Nadal was intent on avoiding the same drawn-out struggle again.

While he missed a backhand on a 23-shot rally for the chance to serve out the clash, he needed only one further invitation before he stepped up and sealed the deal.

A shot at an unprecedented 21st major was now within reach.

Eye on the prize: Nadal was brilliant

"For me it's all about the Australian Open more than anything else," Nadal said. "It's just an amazing event that, as I said a couple of days ago, I had been a little bit unlucky with some injuries.

"There were times I played amazing finals with good chances – against Novak in 2012, against Roger 2017 – I was close a couple of times.

"I feel very lucky that I won it once in my career in 2009 but I never thought about another chance in 2022."