Tennis: Rafael Nadal fights way into dream Aussie Open tennis final with Federer

MELBOURNE - Meeting No.35 between a hair-tossing artist and a scowling warrior will take place in an arena called Rod Laver Arena on Sunday evening. You are invited to attend, even from a distance on TV. We will guarantee shots you have never seen before as Mr Rafael Nadal plays Mr Roger Federer for another Grand Slam title. Pick a side. Bring tissue. Romance in sport is not yet dead. 

Of course, it almost never happened because a brave Bulgarian, translating all his potential into one stunning performance, kept Nadal on court for four hours and 56 minutes in a match of exquisite shots, extraordinary emotion and physical brutality before losing. 

Grigor Dimitrov had Nadal at 3-4 and 15-40 in the fifth set but the rejuvenated Spaniard, who is finally finding his very exacting "level", did what he does: He hit a backhand down the line. He was an older Nadal, exhausted and hurting, but like the old Nadal he would not yield. 

The geometry of their tennis was dazzling and their retrieving astonishing. Dimitrov had something in his sneakers. Wings, perhaps. Nadal only had wheels. After 124 winners together, eventually the Spaniard won 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (4-7), 6-4 and then slowly fell towards the court. Not to kiss it, perhaps just to sleep. It was, he said later in the press room at 1.06am, the first thing he needed to do. 

Years ago in 2009, Nadal defeated Fernando Verdasco in the semi-final in five hours 14 minutes and then returned to beat Federer in the final in five sets. He is older now but the omens remain good and he is immediate favourite for this title. Not least because if no one has played tennis better than Federer, then no one has played Federer better than Nadal. 

The Spaniard is five years younger than the Swiss, has the finer form, the psychological edge and the statistical lead. He is 23-11 in their head-to-head meetings, is 14-7 in all finals, is 9-2 in Grand Slams, is 3-0 at the Australian Open and is 8-2 on outdoor hardcourt surfaces. Federer was right the other day: He really has nothing to lose. 


Nadal celebrates victory against Federer in the semi-final of the 2014 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. PHOTO: AFP

But Nadal, his exhaustion carved into his face, dismissed the past last night. "No, was a long time ago. Is a different match, different moment for both of us. I think this match is completely different than what happened before. 

"Is special. We have not been there in that situation for a while, so that makes the match different. I really don't think about what happened in the past. I think the player who play better is going to be the winner." 

They are a bit older than when they first met in 2004. Then Rafa was 17, Roger was 22 and tennis was not yet besotted by them. Since then they have together won 31 Grand Slam singles titles and in some divine coincidence the two finest players of modern times found themselves in the same era. It made them better and it made us grateful. 

They are decent men built from different skills who made each other cry. One light-footed, one muscular; one creating an idea, the other refuting it; one volleying, one defending. "It is," Nadal insisted last night "the combination of two different styles that makes the matches really special. Is different way to play tennis." 

So different, so charming, so intense that a planet beyond tennis took note. Their duels were known by grandmothers who were uninterested in sport and by people on the street who barely cared for tennis. Roger, Rafa simply became planetary code for very classy conflict. "People from outside of our world talks about this," Nadal said "and that's good for our sport." 

They are respectful of the game, and of each other, though we are not always of them. When we pick one as a favourite, we tend to pick holes in the other. In trying to belittle one we only demean them both. Now they are older men but not equally so: Federer has less time and Nadal more chances, but both are searching to break a drought: Federer has no Slam since 2012 and Nadal since 2014. 

Now two limping fellows from last year who were planning an exhibition match are where they want to be: Playing for history. Playing in front of the planet. Playing each other. Even we didn't think this was possible, didn't think their talent ran this deep and their resolve so far. Rafa and Roger, imagine that: They're even greater than we thought.