MELBOURNE- A teary-eyed Rafa Nadal felt his tennis career was "alive" again after Friday's victory over Italian Matteo Berrettini took him to the Australian Open final and left him one win away from a men's record 21st Grand Slam title.
A couple of months ago, the 35-year-old Spaniard was worried that he might never return to the court again after missing chunks of the 2021 season, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open, due to a long-standing foot problem.
Nadal also suffered a difficult few days after contracting COVID-19 last month but despite the calamitous build-up to the season, he has been unbeaten in 2022.
He registered his 10th straight win on Friday and after overpowering Wimbledon finalist Berrettini 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 to reach his sixth final at Melbourne Park, Nadal could not stop the tears from rolling down as he buried his face in his shirt.
"I went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light there," he told reporters.
"A lot of conversations with the team, with the family about what's gonna happen if things continue like this, thinking that maybe it's a chance to say goodbye.
"I feel alive in terms of my tennis life, in terms of my tennis career."
A win for the Spaniard in Sunday's final against Daniil Medvedev will break a three-way tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer and give him sole ownership of the men's major record.
Federer has been on a lengthy injury break while top-ranked Djokovic was deported from Australia before the tournament started after his visa was cancelled, leaving Nadal as the only one with a chance to nose ahead.
With rain bucketing down outside, Nadal made a fast start under the closed roof at the Rod Laver Arena and took control by breaking Berrettini's serve early in each of the first two sets.
Nadal's vicious top-spin forehand did most of the damage early on, pinning the seventh seed down behind the baseline and leaving him very little time to produce his big groundstrokes.
"I started the match playing great. First two sets have been one of the best ... since a long time," Nadal said on court.
"I know how good Matteo is. He's a very solid player, very dangerous. In the third I knew at some point he's gonna go for the shots.
"We need to suffer and we need to fight. That is the only way to be where I am today."
Just when it looked as if the match would go the same way as their only previous meeting, when Nadal won in straight sets at the 2019 U.S. Open, Berrettini came alive.
He forced the Spanish sixth seed back with heavy forehands in the third set and a first break of serve for Berrettini in the eighth game took the match into a fourth.
Nadal got the crucial break in the eighth game as the 25-year-old Italian's unforced errors increased and another mistake -- his 39th compared to his opponent's 19 -- allowed the 2009 champion to convert his first matchpoint after a battle that lasted two hours and 55 minutes.
It will be the 29th major final for Nadal, whose haul includes a record 13 French Open titles, on Sunday. A second triumph at Melbourne Park would make him only the second man after Djokovic to win every Grand Slam title at least twice since the sport turned professional in 1968.
"I have been a little bit unlucky during my career with some injuries and other times I played amazing finals with good chances," said Nadal. "I was close a couple of times.
"I feel very lucky that I won once in my career in 2009 but I never thought about another chance in 2022."
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Pritha Sarkar ) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +91 22 6841 4383; Twitter: @Sudipto_Reuters;))