A first Grand Slam men singles final between old rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal since Roland Garros 2011 moved one step closer to becoming a reality on Thursday (26 January) after the former outlasted fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3 in a pulsating last-four clash at the Australian Open.
The 35-year-old Federer missed the final six months of last season in a bid to extensively rehabilitate his knee following surgery that took place earlier in the year, but certainly did not look out of sorts on his return to competitive tennis with impressive victories over Jurgen Melzer, Noah Rubin, Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Mischa Zverev. His impressive record over friend, compatriot and former Davis Cup teammate Wawrinka, against whom he had lost only three of 21 previous meetings, only served to further increase the sense of expectation.
"I can really actually talk about playing a final – I've been dodging that bullet for a few rounds," Federer was quoted as saying by the BBC regarding a potential meeting with Nadal. "I'll leave it all out here in Australia and if I can't walk for five months, that's OK. Rafa has presented me the biggest challenge, I think I played him too many times on clay early in my career.
"I am probably his number one fan, his game is tremendous. We had some epic battles over the years and I think both of us would never have thought we would be playing here in a final. I opened his academy last year. I told him I wish we could do a charity match or something – I was on one leg, he had a wrist injury, so we played some tennis with some juniors and that was the best we could do. It's very special for both of us."
The first set somehow stayed on serve until Wawrinka, needing to hold again to force a tiebreak, made two costly unforced errors at a crucial time to cede the advantage. Federer then broke twice en route to blitzing the second set, leaving his opponent to obliterate his racket in pure frustration.
Wawrinka, towel draped over his face, left the court in tears at the start of the third and led many to speculate that he might be about to call it quits as he took as a medical timeout to receive treatment on a knee injury. He returned with the necessary strapping and looked rather sluggish in his movement until gaining some real momentum with a morale-boosting double break. He needed less than half an hour to cut Federer's lead to 2-1.
Further breaks were exchanged at the start of the fourth until a couple of holds put the set back on serve as the match clock ticked past three hours. Federer later saved two break points at 4-4 but was unable to prevent a cross-court winner and Wawrinka then held to love to force a decider.
Federer staved off two more break opportunities early in that fifth set and made a crucial breakthrough himself with help from a timely Wawrinka double fault. He carved out three match points on serve and moved within one win of an 18th major title thanks to a long forehand return.
"I don't know how many break points I saved, it was tough," the 17th seed added. "I felt Stan had the upper hand from the baseline in the fifth set. I just knew I had to stay in it somehow and play aggressive. I feel like he gave me a bit of a cheap break, but after that I served it home and I couldn't be happier right now.
"I felt like everything happened so quickly at the end, I had to check the score at the end. It feels amazing. I never ever in my wildest dreams thought I'd come this far in Australia. It's beautiful, I'm so happy."
Attention now turns to Nadal, who faces world number 15 Grigor Dimitrov in his semi-final clash tomorrow. There has already been a decidedly retro feel to this Australian Open, with Williams sisters Venus and Serena set to go head-to-head in a Grand Slam final for the first time in eight years after respective wins over Coco Vandeweghe and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.