MELBOURNE, Australia — The way Rafael Nadal managed to somehow retrieve a forehand midway through the second set shocked even Roger Federer, who has been on the receiving end of the Spaniard's unbelievable shots more than anyone else in Grand Slams.
It was a tipping point Friday in their Australian Open semifinal. Federer had lost the first-set tiebreaker but was still throwing his whole arsenal at Nadal.
At 15-30 in the sixth game of the second set, Federer thought he had wrong-footed Nadal with a volley deep into the left corner. Nadal lunged for a desperate forehand, swinging just as the ball was about to bounce for the second time and angling it back over the net. Federer, in good position but not expecting he would need to play another shot, framed a volley.
It gave Nadal a break point, and he quickly broke Federer for the first time in the match.
He completed his 23rd win in 33 head-to-heads, and ninth in 11 Grand Slam matches, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-3 in 2 hours and 24 minutes against the 17-time major winner.
A win over another Swiss, No. 8 seed Stan Wawrinka, in Sunday's final, would give Nadal a 14th Grand Slam title and make him the first man to win all four majors at least twice in the Open era.
Nadal missed the 2013 Australian Open during a seven-month layoff for illness and a knee injury, but he returned to win the French and U.S. Opens among his 10 titles for the season and finished the year at No. 1.
He won the Australian Open in 2009, beating Federer in the final, and lost in a five-set, 5-hour, 53-minute 2012 final to Novak Djokovic after ousting Federer in the semis. In other years, he has struggled with injuries — it's the only Grand Slam tournament he hasn't won at least twice.
"It's really, really emotional for me to be back on this court, and to be able to play another final — (Friday) I played the best match of the tournament," Nadal said.
"Very emotional moments in the Rod Laver Arena in the past, very emotional moments this year especially because (this) is the Grand Slam that I really had more problems in my career."
Injuries kept him out of the 2006 Australian Open and hampered his progress in the 2010 and 2011 quarterfinals.
"A lot of years I didn't have a chance to play in this tournament that I really love so much with the perfect conditions," Nadal, 27, said.
"So it is very special to have the chance to be in the final here again."
By reaching his first major final with a semifinal win over Tomas Berdych on Thursday, Wawrinka ensured he would replace Federer as Switzerland's highest-ranked player for the first time.
But the 32-year-old Federer is confident of returning to his old winning ways with coaching from Stefan Edberg and improving his fitness after a slump in 2013, when he didn't reach any of the major finals for the first time in 11 years.
"I still think my best tennis is only ahead of me now," Federer said.
Hall of Famer Pete Sampras, who will present the men's singles trophy, praised Federer's longevity.
"Seems like he wants to play for another four or five years," Sampras said. "The fact that he's able to keep it so fresh is impressive."
Nadal's 19th final ties him with Ivan Lendl for second in Grand Slam final appearances — Federer leads the list with 24. Another Grand Slam title would lift Nadal to second on the all-time list with Sampras, who attended Friday's match.
Nadal has struggled with a blister on the palm of his left hand in his past two matches, but he removed the heavy tape that affected his serve in his quarterfinal win over Grigor Dimitrov and replaced it with one square of adhesive tape.
"The blister is okay," Nadal said. "The problem … is the position of the blister, it's difficult." But he didn't feel any pain.
He certainly didn't show it if he did. He resisted just about everything Federer threw at him, scrambling to keep balls in play that usually would be winners.
Federer served and volleyed, he played with good touch, he played drop shots, he tried everything — even complaining to the chair umpire about Nadal's loud grunting after the tiebreaker — but Federer's 50 resulting unforced errors doubled Nadal's.
Left-handed Nadal hit 13 of his 28 winners on his powerful forehand side, attacking Federer's one-handed backhand yet again.
"I tried a few things … then again, Rafa does a good job of neutralizing you," Federer said. "So I guess at times I couldn't quite do what I wanted to do, but that's because of Rafa."