By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal had to be at his battling best to outlast Grigor Dimitrov 6-3 5-7 7-6(5) 6-7(4) 6-4 at the Australian Open on Friday and set up a mouth-watering ninth grand slam final meeting with his great rival Roger Federer.
The Spaniard looked every inch a 14-times grand slam champion as he slugged it out with his 25-year-old opponent over nearly five hours on Rod Laver Arena to reach his first major final since the 2014 French Open and 21st overall.
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"Grigor was playing unbelievable, it was a great match," the 30-year-old said.
"I think both of us deserve to be in that final, it was a great fight. Finally it was me, I feel lucky and I am very happy for that."
With 35-year-old Serena Williams facing her 36-year-old sister Venus in Saturday's women's final and a rested Federer, 35, waiting for Nadal on Sunday, it is the first time in the open era that all four grand slam finalists have been over 30.
Dimitrov, riding high on a 10-match winning streak and seeking his first grand slam final, did his best to keep the twentysomething standard flying into the weekend.
There were no signs of the mental frailties that have prevented Dimitrov from fulfilling the potential promised by his nickname "BabyFed" as he went blow-for-blow with the powerful left-hander.
"It's never easy to lose a match like that," said Dimitrov, who hit 79 winners. "But it also shows me that I'm on the right path. At least one thing I can say is I left it all out there on court."
Ninth seed Nadal was forced to save two break points in the opening game alone, setting the tone for a frenetic evening.
The 2009 champion soon hit his stride, though, and a booming pass that the world number 15 was unable to get back gave Nadal a break for 3-1 and he wrapped up the opening set in 35 minutes.
The Bulgarian refused to buckle, though, and pounced to break to love for a 3-1 lead in the second set, Nadal perhaps distracted by a time violation warning.
From there, the set descended into chaos with both players broken twice and Nadal forced to save four set points before Dimitrov evened up the contest on the fifth.
The break points continued to come thick and fast in the third set, Nadal converting his third and Dimitrov his fourth to keep the set on serve.
After a short break while a spectator received medical attention, Nadal held for 6-6 and the set went into a tiebreaker.
Nadal missed a large part of the 2016 season because of a wrist injury but proved there was nothing wrong with his fitness as he scrapped to go 2-1 up, sealing the deal with a blistering forehand which Dimitrov parried into the net.
Another tiebreaker looked inevitable when the break points dried up in the fourth set, and Dimitrov quickly took control before serving up a 195 kph bomb to send the contest into a decider.
There were chances for both men in the fifth but, with midnight long past, Nadal came to the net to punch a backhand into the back court, break for 5-4 and earn the right to serve for the match.
Still Dimitrov would not lie down, though, and Nadal needed three match points to win his 12th straight grand slam semi-final and reach his fourth Australian Open final.
"It's special to play Roger again in the final of a grand slam, I cannot lie," Nadal added.
"I need to go back to the hotel, to rest well, and to recover."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)