Rafael Nadal took one more step towards No 21 as he beat Matteo Berrettini 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 to book a spot in the Australian Open final.
Nadal took the first two sets in just under 90 minutes but was pegged back when Berrettini earned his first break of the match in his opponent’s 13th service game.
However it was only delaying the inevitable as the Spaniard closed out the match in two hours and 58 minutes to reach the final for the sixth time.
He has only won the trophy once, all the way back in 2009, but this one would be perhaps the most significant, because it would move him one clear of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the all-time standings.
Nadal insisted afterwards that the race to 21 (and beyond) was not on his mind in Melbourne, although he did namecheck both his great rivals on court afterwards.
“For me, it’s all about the Australian Open more than anything else. It’s just an amazing event,” Nadal said.
“I have been a little bit unlucky during my career with some injuries and other times I played amazing finals with good chances against Novak 2012, against Roger 2017.
“I was close a couple of times. I feel very lucky that I won once in my career in 2009 but I never thought about another chance in 2022 so [I’ll] just try to enjoy the victory today and then after tomorrow, I do my best.”
Nadal has repeatedly insisted that he feared his career was over this winter due to a foot issue that ended his season prematurely last year, and his rehab was also hindered by contracting Covid-19 at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, an exhibition in Abu Dhabi that turned into something of a super-spreader event.
He also admitted that he was somewhat in the dark when it comes to his own fitness levels, by virtue of that interrupted pre-season.
Nadal suffered stomach problems and even heatstroke during his win over Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals and was reduced to just 15 minutes of training the day after, but was afforded an extra day’s rest by a quirk of the schedule.
“The day after [the Shapovalov match] in the morning I felt much better than what I thought which was something that really surprised me because I didn’t practise for it,” Nadal added.
“I was doing some exercises the day after just 15 minutes on court and then yesterday I practise for one hour 30.
“Sometimes two days in the middle are difficult to manage. In this case I was lucky to have that two days.”
Nadal will only have one day off – Saturday – to prepare for his 29th grand slam final, but he will have an advantage of a few hours over his opponent: Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev will face off in the second semi-final on Friday evening in Melbourne (8.30am in the UK).