Rafael Nadal shed tears of happiness and disbelief as he went from doubts about his tennis future to the Australian Open final in just over a month.
The 35-year-old defeated Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 at Rod Laver Arena to reach his sixth Melbourne final and 29th overall at a slam.
Sunday’s victory would see Nadal overtake great rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and become the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles.
However, for much of the last six months, he was unsure if he would be able to play competitively again, as a long-standing foot problem worsened dramatically and did not improve.
“I went through many challenging moments, many days of hard work without seeing a light there,” said Nadal, who also contracted coronavirus last month.
“Many conversations with the team, with the family, about what can happen or what will happen if things continue like this, thinking that maybe it is an opportunity to say goodbye.
“That was not many months ago. To be able to be where I am today, I really can’t put into words how important it is to me in terms of energy, in terms of personal satisfaction, in terms of being very grateful for all the support I received from the fans and especially from the people very close to me
“It is much more important to have the opportunity to play tennis than to win all 21.”
Playing in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last month persuaded Nadal and his team that reaching the Australian Open might be possible.
The coach of the sixth seed, Carlos Moya, told AS: “The problem with this injury is that there is no definitive treatment. If you could have surgery, spend six months away and look good, but it’s not like that.
“We had several conversations during the preseason, because we saw that it was not progressing. Then he told me: ‘Let’s go ahead and, if I break, I break’”.
It’s clear how much Nadal has exceeded his own expectations so far and, after overcoming a five-set contest with Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals, he put on a fine display to see off seventh seed Berrettini.
Playing indoors at Rod Laver Arena as thunder rumbled in Melbourne, the Spaniard was in complete control through two sets and displayed all his experience and competitive sense to bounce back from losing the third to secure it in four.
Nadal will now try to match Djokovic by becoming only the second man in the Open era to win every slam title at least twice having won his only title in Melbourne in 2009.
“For me, it’s more about the Australian Open than anything,” Nadal said. “It is an incredible event. I’ve been unlucky with some injuries. I was close a couple of times. I feel very lucky to have won it once in my career in 2009, but I never thought of another opportunity in 2022.”
Berrettini found his weaker backhand mercilessly attacked by Nadal early on and last year’s Wimbledon finalist failed to gain a foothold in the match until the third set.
He finally started to do some damage with his big forehand and broke Nadal’s serve for the first time in two matches in the eighth game of the third set, but that turned out to be the highlight.
The Italian was disappointed in his start, saying: “The first two sets were not what I expected, what I wanted from myself. I was, I wouldn’t say flat, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, in the right mindset.
“It was good that I had a really big and good reaction. This is what makes me most proud and makes me happy. But you can’t be on the court. That’s how I think of the first two sets against a player like Rafa”.
Berrettini, who has yet to beat a top-10 opponent in a slam, has reached at least the quarter-finals in the last four tournaments, losing three times to Djokovic and now once to Nadal.
“It makes me feel like maybe it’s time to beat them,” the 25-year-old said.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.