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Gunning for 21 – Nadal defeats Berrettini to reach Australian Open final

Rafael Nadal pushed past Matteo Berrettini in four sets to reach his 29th Grand Slam final on Friday night in Melbourne, leaving the Spaniard one victory from a historic 21st major title.

Rafael Nadal Australian Open Tennis – Australian Open – Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia – January 28, 2022 Spain’s Rafael Nadal celebrates winning his semi final match against Italy’s Matteo Berrettini || 219167_0336

Rafael Nadal has played his share of important matches over the course of his illustrious career, but he has never played for a chance to stand alone atop the all-time men’s singles Grand Slam titles list. That will change on Sunday when the Spaniard contests his 29th Grand Slam final against either Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open.

Nadal entered the 2022 season with low expectations, having been away from the game on injury hiatus for the final four months of 2021. But things have progressed rapidly for him in Melbourne, where he remains undefeated this month, and appears to be playing better each time he takes the court. Rounding into vintage form on Friday, the 20-time major champion defeated Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in front of a supportive and enthusiastic crowd in Rod Laver Arena to move one step from a milestone that seemed far-fetched at the start of the year.

Nadal, who holds a 20-8 record in major finals (1-4 in Australian Open finals) will be playing for a slice of tennis immortality, but he’d prefer to think of it as just another chance to to play for a big title while playing the sport he loves.

Nadal – suffering is the only way

Nadal looked to be headed to an uncomplicated victory against the 25-year-old world No 7 in Friday’s semi-final, but the second career meeting of the two rivals took a 180 degree turn near the end of the third set. Suddenly Nadal, who had breezed past Berrettini at the 2019 US Open in straight sets, found himself in a fight for survival, after Berrettini claimed the third set and reeled off a streak of 23 consecutive points on serve to keep him in good stead half way through the fourth.

“I know how good Matteo is,” Nadal would later say. “He’s a very solid player, very dangerous. In the third I knew at some point he was going to go for the shots.”

Nadal commenced the contest playing pitch-perfect tennis. He directed much of the traffic towards Berrettini’s weaker backhand wing, struck his ground strokes with clarity and conviction, and marched easily to a two sets to love lead.

He appeared headed for a straight sets victory, but Berrettini, sluggish in the early moments of the match, suddenly surged to life and began to put more weight behind his shots. As the Italian began to hold sway in the rallies Nadal resorted to weathering the huge push of the Italian before crafting a timely break of serve in the eighth game of the fourth set.

Nadal then served the match out in style in the next game, and celebrated with verve, thrusting his fists into the air as he made eye contact with his players’ box, the 35-year-old closing out his 75th Australian Open win and his 500th triumph on a hard court.

Nadal would later admit that he was feeling the tension of the moment as Berrettini mounted his charge.

“We need to suffer, and we need to fight [in the fourth set], that’s the only way to be where I am today,” he told the crowd. “Honestly it means a lot to be in the final again here.”

History waits for Nadal, but the Spaniard is focused on the present

The focus of the sporting world will be on Nadal on Sunday as he mounts his quest for a 21st major title, but the Spaniard is keeping his focus narrow, as he has all week.

He was asked on court by Jim Courier how he felt about having a shot to become the first man to ever win 21 major titles.

“For me it’s all about the Australian Open more than anything else,” Nadal said on court. “It’s just an amazing event. As I said a couple of days ago I have been a little bit unlucky with some injuries during my career, and other times I played amazing finals with good chances against Novak in 2012 and against Roger in 2017, I was close a couple of times, I feel very lucky that I won once in my career, 2009, but I never thought about another chance in 2022.”

“Just try to enjoy the victory of today and then after tomorrow I gonna try my best.”

Whether it is a 21st major title or a second Australian Open title, or simply another chance to win a major, it’s clear that Friday’s victory meant the world to Nadal. After being forced to shut down his season due to a foot injury in 2021, he wondered when – and perhaps even if – he’d be able to get back to his top form.

With nine consecutive victories to start the season – including six quality wins at the Australian Open that included his first top-10 win in Melbourne since 2017 – it’s clear the question was when, and the time is now.

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