Rafael Nadal moved one win away from a record 21st Grand Slam men’s title after a dominant start enabled him to beat Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in the Australian Open semi-finals.
Seventh seed Berrettini eventually turned the match into a contest, but Nadal completed a 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 win.
The 35-year-old Spaniard is level on 20 major titles with long-time rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Nadal plays Daniil Medvedev, who beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, in Sunday’s final.
“The first two sets were some of the best I’ve played for a long time,” said Nadal, who won his only Melbourne title in 2009.
“Against a difficult opponent, a great opponent, one of the best of the world, I was able to play I think at a very high level for a long time.
“I had to suffer and I had to fight but it means a lot to be in the final again.”
Nadal’s achievement in reaching a 29th Grand Slam final comes only a few months after he thought a foot injury could end his illustrious career.
Russian second seed Medvedev edged a high-quality battle with Greek fourth seed Tsitsipas, winning 7-6 (7-5) 4-6 6-4 6-1 in Friday’s second men’s semi-final.
Medvedev, 25, is aiming for his second successive Grand Slam title after winning the maiden major of his career at the US Open in September.
He is also looking to go one step further in Melbourne after losing in last year’s final to Djokovic, who did not play this year after being deported from Australia in a visa row related to him being unvaccinated.
Before the match there were some lingering doubts about Nadal’s chances, not least because of his injury problems last year.
These centred around the indoor conditions perhaps favouring the powerful Berrettini – severe thunderstorms in Melbourne meant the roof was closed throughout – and how 35-year-old Nadal would have recovered after being “destroyed physically” from a gruelling five-set quarter-final against Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.
With the benefit of two full days without a match since Tuesday’s win, Nadal quickly quashed any uncertainty.
Nadal started sharply as he attacked Berrettini’s backhand – considered the weakest part of the 25-year-old Italian’s game – from the outset.
A stream of mistakes came from this side as Berrettini fell 3-0 behind and Nadal appropriately sealed the opening set with a serve to the backhand, which the 2021 Wimbledon finalist returned into the net.
This Berrettini shot continued to break down in the second set, enabling Nadal to take his opening two service games and move into another 3-0 lead.
Head bowed, Berrettini looked unsure how to neutralise Nadal and the other facets of his game were suffering too.
When Nadal sealed the second set after one hour and 25 minutes, Berrettini had already hit 24 unforced errors. His inability to test Nadal – in part because of the Spaniard’s brilliance – had been costly.