Nadal edges Dimitrov to set up title match against Federer

AP
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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.

Roger Federer bids farewell in last match before retirement

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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LONDON – This day, this match, had to come, of course, for Roger Federer, and for tennis, just as it inevitably must for every athlete in every sport.

Federer was bidding farewell Friday night with one last contest before he heads into retirement at age 41 after an illustrious career that included 20 Grand Slam titles and role as a statesman for tennis. He was scheduled to play a doubles match alongside his rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.

“For me, just personally, (it was) sad in the first moment, when I came to the conclusion it’s the best decision,” Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions when realizing it was time to go. “I kind of held it in at first, then fought it off. But I could feel the pain.”

When the players from both squads were introduced before the initial singles matchup of the three-day team event at the O2 Arena, Federer was the last to emerge from a tunnel leading out to the black court, wearing his team’s blue zip-up jacket and black pants. Fans who were loud enough for Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and others really let Federer hear their support and gratitude, rising for a lengthy standing ovation while lifting their phone cameras to capture the moment.

When there were breaks in the action during the matches before his, Federer wandered over to the stands and signed autograph after autograph – on programs, tennis balls, whatever was thrust his way by spectators.

“The crowd was electric,” Sock said after losing the opening singles match Friday afternoon to two-time 2022 Grand Slam runner-up Casper Ruud 6-4, 5-7, 10-7. “I can only imagine what it’s going to be like for the rest of the weekend. And obviously tonight with … two of the `GOATs’ playing together.”

In the second match – which was briefly interrupted when an environmental protester made it on to the court and lit his arm on fire before being carried away by security guards – Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 to put Team Europe ahead 2-0.

Those lucky enough to have tickets came from all over, no distance too far to travel, no expense too great.

“I have such mixed feelings about this,” said Indrani Maitra, a 49-year-old from India. “I’m really glad I’m being able to catch his last match. But I’m really sad this is his last match.”

She came with her daughter, Anushka Verma, a 19-year-old student at University of California, Berkeley, for what they said was their first time to watch tennis live. Both wore blue hats for the occasion, Maitra’s with Federer’s “RF” insignia, Verma’s with Nadal’s bull horns logo.

There were lines hundreds of people deep at the “Game, Set, Merch” shops in and outside the venue. Jacob Benaion, a 61-year-old from Brazil, said he waited for more than an hour with his son, 32-year-old Moyses.

“I love tennis. My first favorite was Ivan Lendl. After that, Pete Sampras. And after that, Roger Federer. And Roger Federer is the best one of all,” Benaion said. “He is a legend and he helped tennis grow around the world. He is an ambassador of tennis.”

This goodbye follows that of Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the U.S. Open three weeks ago after a third-round loss. It leaves questions about the future of a game he and she dominated, and transcended, for decades.

One key difference: Each time Williams took the court in New York, the looming question was how long her stay would endure – a “win or this is it” prospect. Friday IS it for Federer, no matter the result.

The Laver Cup, which is in its fifth edition, was founded by Federer’s management company and uses a format quite different from a standard tournament. So a victory for him and Nadal would not mean advancing to another round.

Instead, Federer made clear that his surgically repaired right knee – the last of three operations came shortly after a loss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in July 2021, which will go down as his final official singles match – is in no shape to allow him to continue, and he will not compete beyond Friday.

“It will be awesome to see Roger back on court. No one really knows what to expect physically from him, where he’s at, but … we’ll enjoy every minute of it,” Sock said. “Give him a big hug at the end, win or lose.”

Just before Ruud vs. Sock began, Federer rose from a black couch just off the sideline and walked over to offer Ruud a pat on the shoulder.

After his victory, Ruud said about Federer: “All the players will miss him.”

“Roger is a unicorn in our sport,” Tsitsipas said this week. “He has all my respect, all my appreciation for what he has offered to tennis today. It’s something that, for sure, is not going to be forgotten for thousands of years. He has that charisma and purity and aura about him that made him kind of invincible when he was on the court.”

Tiafoe’s take on Federer was similar: “I don’t think we’ll see another guy like Roger, the way he played, and the grace he did it with, and who he is as an individual.”

There have been similar sentiments expressed by many inside the sport and out in the time since Federer made public on Sept. 15 his plan to finish playing at the Laver Cup.

The last hurrah comes after a total of 103 tour-level titles on Federer’s substantial resume and 1,251 wins in singles matches, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968. Federer’s records include being the oldest No. 1 in ATP rankings history – he returned to the top spot at 36 in 2018 – and most consecutive weeks there (his total weeks mark was eclipsed by Djokovic).

At the height of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005-07. Trace it out to 2010 and he reached 18 of 19 major finals.

More than the numbers, folks will remember that powerful forehand, one-handed backhand and flawless footwork, a spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, a willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and – the part he’s proudest of – unusual longevity. Then, too, there is his persona away from the court.

All of which is part of why the truth Friday was that the eventual winner of Federer-Nadal vs. Tiafoe-Sock, the score, the statistics – none of that would matter, was all so entirely beside the point. The day was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, the farewells: Federer’s to tennis, to the fans, to his colleagues. And, naturally, each of those entities’ farewells to Federer.

Federer’s final match comes in doubles alongside rival Nadal

Laver Cup 2022 - Previews
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LONDON – It was quite a collection of tennis luminaries sharing the black indoor hard court for a Laver Cup doubles practice session Thursday, 66 Grand Slam titles among them, a group collectively nicknamed the Big Four: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on one side of the net; Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray on the other.

This team event founded by his management company marks the end of Federer’s career, and his last match will come Friday night alongside longtime rival Nadal for Team Europe against the Team World doubles pairing of Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock.

“I’m not sure if I can handle it all. But I’ll try,” the 41-year-old Federer said about his sure-to-be-emotional on-court farewell after 20 major championships, a total of 103 tournament titles and hundreds of weeks at No. 1 across nearly a quarter of a century as a professional tennis player.

“Sitting here,” Federer said Thursday at a team news conference, with Nadal, who is 36, to his left, and Djokovic and Murray, both 35, a couple of seats down to his right, “it feels good that I go first from the guys. It feels right.”

Federer is ending his playing days following a series of operations on his right knee. He hasn’t competed since a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon to Hubert Hurkacz in July 2021.

In February of this year, when word emerged that Federer would be in London this week, he said Nadal messaged him suggesting they play doubles together again. They teamed up to win a doubles match during the first Laver Cup in 2017.

“I saw him playing on TV before I arrived on tour. I saw him having success on TV, and then (we were) able to create an amazing rivalry together. And on the other hand, something that probably we are very proud of is having a friendly rivalry,” Nadal said Thursday. “Tomorrow is going to be a special thing. Difficult. Going to be difficult to handle everything, especially for Roger, without a doubt. But for me, too. At the end, one of the most important players – if not the most important player – in my tennis career is leaving.”

They played each other in singles 40 times (Nadal won 26), including 14 Grand Slam matchups (Nadal won 10). Nadal came out on top in their classic 2008 Wimbledon final, considered by some the greatest match in history; Federer won their last showdown, in the 2019 semifinals at the All England Club.

“To be part of this historic moment,” Nadal said about Friday, “is going to be something amazing, unforgettable.”

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old American who beat Nadal en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open this month, deadpanned: “Yeah, I’m just excited to play two up-and-comers tomorrow.”

Added Tiafoe: “It’s going to be iconic to be a part of that. Both guys are absolute legends. And obviously, (it’s) Roger’s last dance.”

The full lineup for Day 1 of the three-day Laver Cup was announced Thursday.

The singles matches will be Sock against two-time 2022 Grand Slam finalist Casper Ruud of Team Europe, Diego Schwartzman of Team World against 2021 French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas of Team Europe, and Alex de Minaur of Team World against three-time major champion Murray, before the Federer-Nadal doubles match closes the schedule.

Everyone knows what the main event will be: Federer’s goodbye.

“For me,” Murray said, “it feels right seeing him and Rafa on the same side of the net together.”