When Rafael Nadal played his fourth round match against the Japanese Kei Nishikori, rough edges were visible in his game. Two tie-breaks were required before Nadal could scrape through 7-6, 7-5, 7-6. The score line, however, does not tell the real story of the nail biting three-setter, because the match was more closely contested than the final result indicates. Every set lasted a long time, each point and all games were fiercely fought out. As the first set began Nishikori lost his serve but that was just a deception. He came back to hold a point for a 4-2 lead, but lost the crucial point. In the second set, the Japanese indeed led 4-2, but couldn’t hold on against the tenacious Rafa. In the third set, Nishikori was serving to take the set 6-4 and again squandered away the good work. Rafa won finally but he was dismayed in defeat.

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal

Nadal had another hurdle in the quarterfinal against the Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, who took the first set and put Nadal under pressure. Suddenly, Rafa began feeling insecure, as he did two days ago, against Nishikori. The 22-year old Dimitrov held three set points in the third set but his inexperience at crunch moments came to Rafa’s rescue. Though Nadal finally won the match 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-2, he should consider himself lucky to come out of his sufferings.

Regardless, Nadal played an impeccable match against old foe Roger Federer on Saturday to cruise to the final with a 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 win. This was Nadal’s best performance of the fortnight and it came at the right time. He scored his sixth straight victory in Grand Slams over Federer and enhanced his head-to-head advantage over his old rival to 23-10. After the 2007 Wimbledon final, Nadal has never lost to Federer.

This was the fourth straight semifinal loss for Federer at Melbourne. When the match began, it seemed Nadal would wrap up the first set easily but the great Federer made him wait, despite his service not helping him, as much as he would have liked. In the tie-break, Federer allowed Nadal to take a 3-1 lead, which widened to 5-1, when Federer played a wayward backhand. The first set lasted 59 minutes, during which Federer committed 24 unforced errors and couldn’t earn any break opportunity.

In the next two sets, Nadal put Federer under considerable pressure. On Federer’s service in the fourth game of the second set, the fighting instincts of the Spaniard took the game to deuce on four occasions. Though Federer finally held his serve, he couldn’t raise his game and let Nadal break him in the sixth game. Federer’s best chance in the second set came in the ninth game, with Nadal trailing 0-30 on his serve. At 15-30, the two players were locked in a 22-shot rally, which Nadal finished in his favor to make it 30-30 and went on to take the set in 47 minutes.

With 2-0 advantage in the match, Nadal pressed the pedal further and put more pressure on Federer in the third set. He broke Federer’s serve in the third game. But Federer too found a reserve of his own to break right back. This was about the only highlight of the third set, since Nadal came back strongly to break Federer yet again in the seventh game. In between Federer’s serve troubled Nadal but he held on doggedly as the proceedings continued. It was all over in the ninth game, though the Swiss master saved one match point. Nadal romped home in two hours 24 minutes, when a Federer forehand fell too long.

The victory has allowed Nadal to qualify in the Grand Slam finals for the 19th time. If he wins on Sunday, it will be his 13th major title. His opponent in the final is another Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka, for whom it is the first ever Grand Slam final. Nadal has played Wawrinka 12 times in his career and he has never lost to him. But such figures hold only statistical significance. For those, who need to fight it out on courts, the given day’s performance is more important than anything else. Nadal knows how Wawrinka has progressed in Melbourne this year and he will be on guard, when the final begins.