MELBOURNE, Australia —Rafael Nadal moved within one match of a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam men’s singles title by defeating Matteo Berrettini of Italy, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, in the semifinals of the Australian Open.
The No. 6 seed Nadal will face No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s final.
Medvedev also won in four sets on Friday, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, But his victory was considerably more tempestuous than Nadal’s. After losing his serve in the ninth game of the second set and receiving a code violation for a visible obscenity, Medvedev shouted angrily at chair umpire Jaume Campistol for most of the changeover because he believed that Tsitsipas’s father was illegally coaching his son from the player box.
“Are you stupid? His father can talk every point?” Medvedev said from his chair, screaming “Look at me!” at the Spanish official when Campistol turned his head back toward the court to try to defuse the situation.
It was an extraordinary outburst, and when Tsitsipas did eventually receive a warning for coaching early in the fourth set, he did not win another game as Medvedev accelerated to the finish.
“Many times I lose the match because of this,” Medvedev said of his tantrum. “Lose concentration and too much energy, so as soon as I’ve done it, I was like that’s a big mistake.”
Tsitsipas smiled when asked about the outburst after the match.
“It’s for sure funny,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to this stuff. Players like to do this stuff to throw you off mentally.”
Tsitsipas, who has received several coaching violations in recent seasons, said he was not being coached on Friday even if he believes it should be allowed in men’s tennis. “I cannot hear anything when I’m playing and having the crowd be so loud every single point,” he said. “You have to have super hearing to be able to hear what your coach says.”
But Medvedev, who could face a fine after the match for his behavior, was able to refocus and take complete command of the semifinal. Sunday’s duel with Nadal will be a rematch of the grueling 2019 U.S. Open final that Nadal won in five sets.
Nadal, the 35-year-old Spanish star, is tied with his longtime rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for the men’s record.
But neither Federer nor Djokovic played in this year’s tournament. Federer is still recovering from knee surgery and Djokovic, a nine-time Australian Open champion, was deported on the eve of the tournament after his visa was revoked by the Australian government and his appeal was rejected.
Nadal, the only member of the Big Three in Melbourne, has carried the torch surprisingly well after missing most of the second half of the 2021 season with a chronic foot problem that he said threatened his career. When he did return to action in late December for an exhibition in Abu Dhabi, he contracted Covid-19 and developed symptoms at home in Majorca, Spain before making the long trip to Australia.
But he won a warm-up tournament at Melbourne Park before the main event and has now swept through six more matches to reach his sixth and most unexpected Australian Open final.
He has won this title just once, beating Federer for the title in 2009. Since then, he has experienced plenty of tennis heartache in Rod Laver Arena: losing a five-hour-and-53-minute final in 2012 to Djokovic and another marathon to Federer in 2017 despite holding a 3-1 lead in the fifth set.
Now, he has a chance to set himself apart.
“For me it’s all about the Australian Open more than anything else,” he said when asked about the prospect of winning No. 21. “I was lucky to win in 2009 but never thought about another chance in 2022.”
Nadal now has a 2-0 record against Berrettini, the strapping 25-year-old Italian who has a big serve and heavy forehand and plenty of charisma, but also has a comparatively weak backhand that Nadal exploited repeatedly.
Djokovic did the same when he defeated Berrettini in last year’s Wimbledon final, and for the first two hours of Friday’s match, Berrettini looked frustrated and increasingly forlorn as Nadal kept him off balance and out of sorts with a barrage of crisply sliced serves and high-bouncing forehands.
“I think I started the match playing great,” Nadal said. “The first two sets have been the best so far since a long time.”
Berrettini had no break points on Nadal’s serve until the eighth game of the third set, but with Nadal serving at 3-4, Berrettini sprinted to his right and hit a forehand passing shot winner down the line that appeared to surprise both men. Nadal was soon serving at 0-40 and two points later, Berrettini was able to break him for the first time, slapping a forehand winner.
He then served out third set, baring his teeth to his support team as he strutted past Nadal to his chair before the fourth set.
“He’s a very solid player, very dangerous,” Nadal said. “And in the third, I knew at some point he is going to go for the shots. I didn’t play a good game with my serve at 3-4, but he played some great shots. The passing shot down the line was unbelievable.”
But the patterns of play were still in Nadal’s favor as he continued to focus his attacks on Berrettini’s backhand. The Italian did hit a two-handed winner to get to 15-30 on Nadal’s serve in the opening game of the fourth set, but Nadal won a cat-and-mouse exchange on the next point as Berrettini missed a backhand slice off a good drop shot.
Though Berrettini kept hustling and ripping through his forehands, he could not sustain his comeback, losing his serve in the eighth game of what turned out to be the final set.
“We need to suffer, and we need to fight,” Nadal said, summing up his philosophy over his nearly 20-year career. “That’s the only way I am where I am today. Honestly it means a lot to me to be in the final again here.”
Both Federer and Djokovic have taken aim at No. 21 in a Grand Slam final and missed. Federer had two match points on his serve against Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final and failed to convert. Djokovic faced Medvedev in last year’s U.S. Open final and lost in straight sets.
Now it is Nadal’s turn, even as he continues to say that finishing ahead of Federer and Nadal in the Grand Slam chase is not his obsession or priority.
“I will sleep just as well after I retire whether it happens or does not happen,” he once said in an interview.
But a second Australian Open title would certainly be most welcome. He is the fifth oldest man to reach the singles final here in the Open era and like Federer, who was 35 when he won in 2017, Nadal is coming back from an injury layoff and playing with freedom and lower expectations than usual.
He had the staying power and desire to hold off Denis Shapovalov in a five-set quarterfinal in the heat. After two days to recuperate, he had the skill set and precision to hold off Berrettini under a closed roof on Friday with the rain pelting down on Melbourne during the match.