MELBOURNE, Australia – The way Rafael Nadal managed to somehow keep a forehand in play midway through the second set shocked even Roger Federer, who has been on the receiving end of the Spaniard's unbelievable shots more than anyone else in Grand Slams.
It was a tipping point in their Australian Open semifinal. Federer had lost the first-set tiebreaker but was still throwing his whole arsenal at Nadal.
At 15-30 in the sixth game of the second set, Federer thought he'd wrong-footed Nadal with a volley deep into the left corner. Nadal lunged for a desperate forehand, swinging just as the ball was about to bounce for the second time and angling it back over the net. Federer, in good position but not expecting he'd need to play another shot, framed a volley. Nadal got breakpoint and quickly broke Federer for the first time in the match.
He completed his 23rd win in 33 head-to-heads, and ninth in 11 Grand Slam matches, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in 2 hours and 24 minutes against the 17-time major winner.
A win over another Swiss, No. 8-seeded Stan Wawrinka in Sunday's final, would give Nadal a 14th Grand Slam title and make him the first man to win all four majors at least twice in the Open era.
Nadal missed the 2013 Australian Open during a seven-month layoff for illness and a knee injury, but returned to win the French and U.S. Opens among his 10 titles for the season and finished the year at No. 1. He won the Australian Open in 2009, beating Federer in the final, and lost in a five-set, 5-hour, 53-minute 2012 final to Novak Djokovic after ousting Federer in the semis. In other years, he's struggled with injuries — it's the only Grand Slam tournament he hasn't won at least twice.
"It's really, really emotional for me to be back on this court, Rod Laver Arena, and to be able to play another final," Nadal said. "I think tonight I played the best match of the tournament. I go on court (against Federer) knowing that is a really tough match and if I am not playing my best, I will not have the chance to win."
At the end of the night, Federer knew he wouldn't even be the No. 1-ranked player in Switzerland next week. By reaching his first major final with a win over Tomas Berdych on Thursday night, Wawrinka ensured he'd replace Federer as their country's highest-ranked player for the first time.
But the 32-year-old Federer is confident of winning more majors, expecting some coaching from Stefan Edberg and continued improvement in his fitness to help after a slump in 2013, when he didn't reach any of the major finals for the first time in 11 years.
"I still think my best tennis is only ahead of me now," he said.
Nadal is now second on the list of players reaching Grand Slam finals, joining Ivan Lendl on 19 — Federer leads the list with 24. Another Grand Slam title would lift Nadal to equal second on the all-time list with Pete Sampras, who was in the crowd for the match.
Nadal has struggled with a blister on the palm of his left hand in his last two matches, but he removed the heavy tape that affected his serve in his quarterfinal win over Grigor Dimitrov and replaced it with one square of adhesive tape.
"The blister is OK," Nadal said. "The problem ... is the position of the blister, it's difficult." But, he added, he didn't feel any pain.
He certainly didn't show it if he did. He resisted just about everything Federer threw at him, scrambling to keep balls in play that usually would be winners.
Federer served and volleyed, he played with good touch, he played drop shots, he tried everything — even complaining to the chair umpire about Nadal's loud grunting after the tiebreaker — but his 50 resulting unforced errors doubled the number by his rival.
Left-handed Nadal hit 13 of his 28 winners on his powerful forehand, attacking Federer's one-handed backhand yet again.
"I tried a few things ... then again, Rafa does a good job of neutralizing you," Federer said. "So I guess at times I couldn't quite do what I wanted to do, but that's because of Rafa."
Li Na will be hoping for third time lucky in the women's final on Saturday against Dominika Cibulkova. She has reached the finals in three of the past four years, but is yet to win the Australian title.