Nadal wins marathon match to set up Australian Open final against Federer

MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal has fended off Grigor Dimitrov in five long sets to set up a vintage title match against Roger Federer at the Australian Open, where every singles finalist is aged 30 or over.

Nadal completed the 30-plus finals quartet Friday night when he repelled Dimitrov 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4 in the energy-sapping, 4-hour, 56-minute semifinal.

Federer, 35, and the Williams sisters — 36-year-old Venus and 35-year-old Serena — had clinched their spots in the finals on Throwback Thursday.

With Federer and Nadal both returning from injuries, and neither having won a major since mid-2014, a ninth Grand Slam final between two of the previously most dominant men in the sport was considered an extreme long shot at Melbourne Park.

Nadal, returning from a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist after an up-and-down 2016 that started with a shocking first-round exit in Australia, was ranked No. 9.

Federer, off for six months with an injured left knee, was ranked No. 17.

Together, they’ve won 31 Grand Slam titles. On Sunday, Federer will be aiming to extend his men’s record to 18. Nadal will be hoping to cut the gap and move into outright second on the all-time list by winning his 15th.

Federer loves tennis, and most likely would have been watching Friday night’s match at some point as a spectacle.

Nadal had to endure it.

“Grigor was playing unbelievable. It was a great match. I feel very happy to be part of it, I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “To qualify for the final in a match like this means a lot to me.”

Against the 25-year-old Dimitrov, dubbed ‘Baby Fed’ for the similarities he has with Federer’s style, Nadal showed signs of the brute strength and determination that carried him to the top of the rankings for 141 weeks in total from the day after winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — after spending 160 consecutive weeks at No. 2 behind Federer.

Dimitrov won the Brisbane International title earlier in the month, where Nadal was ousted in the quarterfinals, and was playing his second major semifinal. He also had a 1-7 record against Nadal heading into the match.

But he hit 20 aces, moved with precision, broke Nadal’s serve four times, and pounded the Spaniard with 79 winners.

After clinching his 21st win in 24 major semifinals, Nadal dropped to the court and lay face down for several seconds before getting up and embracing Dimitrov at the net.

It will be the first time in the Open era that all four singles finalists are older than 30.

Nadal leads Federer 23-11 in their career meetings, and is 9-2 in Grand Slam matches, including 6-2 in finals.

Federer, despite winning four titles in Australia, hasn’t beaten Nadal on Rod Laver Arena.

The Williams sisters practiced at Melbourne Park on Friday, the day ahead of the women’s final where Serena is aiming for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title.

Venus Williams hadn’t been to a major final since losing the 2009 Wimbledon final to her sister, and won the last of her seven Grand Slam titles the previous year in southwest London with victory over her sibling.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova combined for their second Australian Open women’s doubles title with a 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3 win over Andrea Hlavackova and China’s Peng Shuai.

Mattek-Sands and Safarova won the title here in 2015 — the first of their four major titles together — but were unable to defend in 2016 because of illness.

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