MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal's path to his Australian Open semi-final against Grigor Dimitrov on Friday has taught the 30-year-old Spaniard one thing -- he's still got it.
After being bundled out in the first round by compatriot Fernando Verdasco last year, Nadal has reached his fifth semi-final at Melbourne Park in a remarkable turnaround for the 14-times grand slam winner.
A barren 2016 saw him fail to reach at least one grand slam final for the first time since 2004 and while he won Olympic doubles gold at the Rio Games a troubling wrist injury forced him to call time on his season in early October.
"Very happy that after a lot of work, to be in this round
again," Nadal told reporters. "Is special thing for me, especially here in Australia.
"So, just excited about be back in final rounds of the most important events. You know, I am here to try to make this. Is always difficult, but I (fought) and I worked hard to try to make that happen."
Hard work has been central to the latter part of Nadal's career, particularly as knee and wrist injuries forced him to miss large chunks of recent seasons.
Questions were being raised as to whether he still had the physicality and game to match the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Warwinka and the evergreen Roger Federer, as well as the new generation coming through.
The last three rounds at Melbourne Park have answered those questions decisively as Nadal beat 24th seed Alexander Zverev in five sets, sixth seed Gael Monfils in four, then outclassed third seed Milos Raonic in the quarter-finals.
"Is a good news. Especially winning against difficult players, Monfils, Zverev and now Raonic. I think all of them are top players," he added.
"I think it's getting tougher now. I think now there is really a new very good generation. So that's very important for me because that means that I am competitive and playing well."
Next up is Dimitrov.
Once tipped as the young player most likely to challenge the established order, the Bulgarian has struggled to live up to those expectations and was hindered by off-court distractions.
Friday will mark just his second grand slam semi-final but the 25-year-old feels that under new coach Daniel Vallverdu he now has the mental strength and attitude to match the game that prompted those expectations.
"I have straighter priorities right now. I know what I want from myself as soon as I come to a tournament," he said.
"I come on the court. I'm just happy to try to find a way, even if things are not going my way."
Things have indeed gone his way this year.
Dimitrov is on a winning run of 10 matches that earned him the Brisbane International title and has taken him to the last four at the Australian Open.
However, he knows that means little when he steps on court against Nadal, who has won seven of their eight previous encounters.
"In order to win a slam, there's no shortcut," the 15th seed added. "If you think about it, when have you seen an easy semi-final or something like that?
"You got to work for it. I have to fight, I have to be ready."
(Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)