Rafael Nadal set up an Australian Open final against his great rival Roger Federer after edging Grigor Dimitrov in a classic five-set semi-final which stretched for nearly five hours on Friday.
Nadal pulled off one of his greatest victories in denying Bulgaria's Dimitrov, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (7/5), 6-7 (4/7), 6-4 in four hours and 56 minutes in front of a rocking Rod Laver Arena crowd.
Nadal showed his incredible fighting qualities to claw back from 0-30 down in the ninth game of the final set to break Dimitrov's serve with two tremendous chases to put away the winning volley to lead 5-4. Dimitrov bravely saved two match points as Nadal served out for the match before the Spaniard clinched victory, sinking to his knees in relief and jubilation.
Nadal said it was a "privilege" to face Federer in their ninth final, and first since the 2011 French Open.
"It's a very special thing, I think for both of us to be in the final of a major again and have another chance to compete with each other again after a couple of years having some problems," he said.
"I think both of us never thought we were going to be here again in the final of the Australian Open."
Nadal, who downed Federer in the 2009 final, won through to his fourth Australian Open final and his 21st Grand Slam final. He leads Federer 6-2 in their major finals.
The 30-year-old Spaniard has been out of the Grand Slam limelight since his last title success at Roland Garros in 2014, as injuries sidetracked his glorious career. Nadal is bidding to win his second Australian Open title and become the first man in the Open Era -- and only the third man in history -i to win each of the four Grand Slam titles twice. Nadal and Dimitrov played each other to a standstill in Friday's epic, with two tiebreakers going either way in a semi-final that ran well past midnight.
Federer, who beat fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka in Thursday's first semi-final, was watching on with relish as his rival in Sunday's final was taken the distance in a draining physical battle. The last time both men's semi-finals went to five sets at any Slam was at 2009 Roland Garros, when Federer beat Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling defeated Fernando Gonzalez.
Having both spent much of the previous season struggling with injury and with Sir Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic dominating in their absence, Nadal and Federer, seeded 17th and ninth respectively, were rightly unfancied. Their demise into the rankings abyss was almost taken as inevitable, another Grand Slam title for either all but written off. But, perhaps for the last time, we will see them face up to recreate what was once the sport's most treasured spectacle. So as they prepare to meet for the first time in a major tournament in two years, how does the rivalry, once the greatest in all sport, match up?
Federer, five years Nadal's senior, has always been considered the king with the Spaniard his worthy challenger. He has more Grand Slam titles, more career titles and £255million in net worth compared to Nadal's £195m. In purely head-to-head circumstances, Nadal has come up trumps more often than not. In their head-to-head record, Nadal has triumphed 68 percent of the time, winning 23 of 34 meetings, including six of the eight Grand Slam final encounters.
In fact, had it not been for a career blighted by injuries, there is every chance Nadal would have won significantly more than 14 major titles.
The current Australian Open is just his 47th appearance in a Grand Slam draw while Federer has needed 69 attempts to reach his record haul of 17 major titles.
While the statistics points towards a victory for Nadal, this meeting comes under vastly different circumstances to their previous eight. Federer beat Nadal in their most recent meeting, an ATP 500 final in Basel.
That win broke Nadal's six-match winning streak and suggested Federer was set for an Indian Summer befitting of a record-breaking career.
There is no denying that this could well be the last opportunity for either player to win a Grand Slam and, for that reason, may be their most important meeting yet.