MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Defeated Grigor Dimitrov walked off Rod Laver Arena with applause ringing in his ears and his head held high after a performance of skill and resilience fell agonizingly short of toppling Rafa Nadal on Friday.
The 25-year-old produced arguably the best tennis of his career to push the Spaniard to his limit during a near five-hour Australian Open semi-final classic, eventually succumbing 6-3 5-7 7-6(5) 6-7(4) 6-4.
While defeat will hurt, the quality of Dimitrov's shot-making, and more significantly his resilience against the game's ultimate warrior, should fuel his belief that he will soon become Bulgaria's first grand slam singles finalist.
A day after Roger Federer, the 17-times grand slam champion reached the final, the man once dubbed "Baby Fed" because of a similar crowd-pleasing style, came within a shot or two of setting up a Melbourne showdown with his idol.
After going toe-to-toe with the inexhaustible Spaniard, Dimitrov held two break points when leading 4-3, 15-40 in the fifth set only to have looming victory snatched away as Nadal roared into his first major final since 2014.
"It's never easy to lose a match like that. I'm happy, though, with a lot of things. I'm going to stay positive and keep my head up high," Dimitrov, who lost a 2014 Wimbledon semi-final to Novak Djokovic having beaten Andy Murray, told reporters in the early hours of the morning.
"For sure Rafa deserves pretty much all the credit right now since he's such a fighter, such a competitor. At the same time it was an honor for me to play a match like that against him. It also shows me that I'm in a good way, I'm on the right path."
Fans of the former Wimbledon junior champion, and there will be thousands more after his Australian Open run, will hope Dimitrov can now sustain the form that fired him on a 10-match winning run at the start of 2017.
When he beat defending champion Murray at Wimbledon in 2014 it looked like a pivotal moment in his career had been reached.
But inconsistency and off-court distractions, including dating and then splitting with former women's number one Maria Sharapova, meant he failed to build on that milestone and he failed to pass the fourth round at any of his next nine slams.
Now with Murray's former hitting partner Daniel Vallverdu as his coach, something appears to have clicked.
"I'm proud of my team. Proud of my coach. Everyone that has taken care of me that month, it's been super intense. We can relax for a little bit now and get back to work," he said.
"For sure it's a disappointment to me, but I don't want to get too down on it because it's just my second grand slam semi-final. I'm building on that.
"I'm competing great. Physically I'm getting there. Despite the disappointment, that's going to feed me, I think, for the upcoming events."
Ordinarily Dimitrov's brand of tennis would have swayed the majority of the crowd his way. While he did enjoy noisy support, the prospect of a Nadal-Federer final was an irresistible one.
"Of course, everyone is going to see that final now. Including me, I'm going to watch it for sure," he said.
"It's super amazing. It's great for the sport again. But, you know, during the match you don't think about that kind of stuff. For me, I was just focused on what I had to do."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney and Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)