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Rafael Nadal nears history, with only Daniil Medvedev standing in his way

Rafael Nadal beat Matteo Berrettini in an Australian Open semifinal Friday. (Dean Lewins/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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For all of Rafael Nadal’s vaunted physicality and mental toughness, his four-set victory Friday to reach the final of the Australian Open was a tactical triumph.

Nadal, 35, relentlessly attacked Matteo Berrettini’s shaky backhand, pounced on his second serves and kept his own errors to a minimum, deflating any hope his 25-year-old opponent had that he could topple the 20-time Grand Slam champion, at least until a short-lived rally that came too late.

Thus is the wisdom of older champions, masters of leveraging guile and experience to compensate for whatever age takes away, as the sixth-seeded Nadal did in a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over the seventh-seeded Berrettini that sent him into Sunday’s final against Daniil Medvedev.

Whether that game plan will work against the second-seeded Medvedev, who ousted fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, in Friday’s other semifinal, is an open question.

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But in reaching his sixth Australian Open final, Nadal moved within three sets of claiming a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title that would break his three-way tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, 34, whose bid to compete in Melbourne as an unvaccinated player was denied by government officials.

Just four months ago, in the final of the U.S. Open, it was Medvedev, 25, who spoiled Djokovic’s bid at history with a straight-sets rout that scuttled his hope of winning a 21st major and completing the rare calendar-year Grand Slam.

Nadal was visibly moved by his victory over Berrettini, explaining afterward his mixture of disbelief and gratitude over being able to play competitive tennis again — much less reach another Grand Slam final — after having grave doubts that he could return to the pro tour following foot surgery last fall.

“I went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light there,” Nadal said in his post-match news conference. “I wasn’t able to practice. Sometimes I went on court, and I was able to practice 20 minutes, sometimes 45, sometimes zero, sometimes two hours. [It has] been very, very rough in terms of imagine myself playing at the best-of-five at this moment.”

Yet he did just that Tuesday, though he acknowledged feeling “physically wrecked” by his five-set quarterfinal victory over Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.

With rain breaking Melbourne’s recent heat wave, both of Friday’s semifinals were contested with the roof closed at Rod Laver Arena, which raised the humidity inside and accentuated the roars of the crowd, capped at roughly 65 percent as a coronavirus-related precaution.

The cheers were deafening when Nadal stepped onto the court.

Nadal won his only previous meeting with Berrettini, a semifinal at the 2019 U.S. Open, in straight sets. But Berrettini, Wimbledon’s runner-up last year, is a more dangerous opponent now. And he said on the eve of the rematch that he had finally come to believe that he could achieve more, including beating Nadal, whose matches he cheered as a youngster.

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Nadal got off to a torrid start, racing through the first two sets while Berrettini looked dazed — a step slow and unable to slow the Spaniard’s assault.

Trailing 2-4 in the opening set, Berrettini called for the trainer, who came out to consult on what Berrettini later explained was a combination of fatigue, upset stomach and a previously twisted ankle.

Nadal was within three games of a straight-sets victory when Berrettini shook off his torpor. Two dazzling forehand winners brought him to life, and suddenly it was Nadal who looked edgy.

Berrettini broke serve for the first time in the match and claimed the third set to force a fourth.

For a stretch, the 6-foot-5 Italian was untouchable on his serve, holding three consecutive service games at love. But Nadal found an opening and got the critical break to close the match in just under three hours.

Medvedev’s four-set victory was even more efficient, taking just 2 hours 30 minutes.

It started out as a tussle, however, with terrific shot-making and patches of controversy.

Medvedev and Tsitsipas split the first two sets, and each drew a warning from the umpire early in the proceedings — Medvedev for an obscenity in a tirade he later said he regretted at once, Tsitsipas for a time violation.

As Medvedev started to pull away in the fourth set, Tsitsipas also drew a warning for a coaching violation, the fault of his highly animated father/coach gesticulating from the player’s courtside guest box.

When the momentum turned in Medvedev’s favor, it turned quickly.

Nadal holds a 3-1 career record against Medvedev. In terms of Grand Slam meetings, Sunday’s final will be a rematch of the 2019 U.S. Open final, in which Nadal defeated Medvedev in five sets.

“I’m ready,” Medvedev said. “I know that Rafa is a very strong player, and I will need to show my best.”