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Nadal lets loose after ousting Federer in semis

MELBOURNE, Australia — Only the trophy and the tears were missing from this latest Grand Slam installment of Rafa vs. Roger.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were on opposite sides of the net Thursday, meeting in the semifinals of the Australian Open. And Nadal was the winner again, for the eighth time in their 10 Grand Slam matchups.

He won 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, covering the baseline with incredible speed and hitting forehand winners from almost impossible angles.

He applauded as Federer started to leave the stadium, then ran back onto the court, dropped onto his haunches and pumped his arms in triumph. All that, three days before the final, where he faces the winner of today's semi between defending champion and No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

The latest Grand Slam meeting between Nadal and Federer — who have won 26 majors between them — was a semifinal worthy of a final. Nadal didn't excuse his celebration but explained it as letting off steam.

Nadal has labored with injuries since losing the U.S. Open final last year. On the eve of this tournament, he hurt a knee while he sat in a chair at his hotel and thought for a while he wouldn't be able to play. He has played with his right knee heavily strapped.

"Twenty-four hours to play my first match, I was in my room crying because I believe I didn't" have the chance to play, Nadal said. "So it was a very, very tough situation for me, these hours.

"Two weeks later, I am here in the finals. … It's one of the victories that's going to stay in my mind forever."

Federer said it feels like Nadal plays his best tennis against him.

"We have had good matches over the years. I enjoy playing him. The crowd really gets into it, which is nice," Federer said. "We have a lot of respect for each other, which is good, too, I think."

Sharapova joins Azarenka in final

The age gap is only two years, but the difference in experience is vast between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

Sharapova, 24, plays her sixth Grand Slam final at the Australian Open on Saturday against Azarenka, 22, who makes her major final debut. And more than a title is on the line. The winner claims the No. 1 ranking.

Four years after winning the last of her three major titles and approaching eight years since she lifted the Wimbledon trophy at 17, Sharapova has another chance to add to her major haul.

"It means so much to be back in a Grand Slam final," she said. "It's nice to get that far again after losing quite early in the last couple of years."

Sharapova, seeded fourth, overcame Petra Kvitova 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the semifinals, and third-seeded Azarenka beat defending champion Kim Clijsters 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.

Azarenka worked on her fitness in the offseason, giving her the confidence to know she can play "as long as I need."

"Even if you believe 1 million percent (you're going to win), it's not going to happen," Azarenka said. "It's a lot of hard work. Those details, that confidence that you get from the tennis match makes you believe."

doubles: Bob and Mike Bryan of Wesley Chapel play for a record 12th major title Saturday after a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) semifinal win over Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau. They face Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek.

Australian Open

Women's final: No. 3 Victoria Azarenka vs. No. 4 Maria Sharapova, 3 a.m. Saturday, ESPN2

Nadal lets loose after ousting Federer in semis 01/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 26, 2012 10:52pm]
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