There are two moments, both in the crucial third set, that will keep Grigor Dimitrov from sleeping tonight.
A pair of forehand errors at 6-6 and 7-8 in the third-set tiebreak when the match was still in the balance helped seal Dimitrov's fate in Wednesday's 3-6 7-6(3) 7-6(7) 6-2 loss to world No.1 Rafael Nadal at Rod Laver Arena.
Playing in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, 22nd-seeded Dimitrov started the cleaner of the pair.
Booming serves mixed with crushing forehands forced Nadal well beyond the baseline and into catch-up mode.
Dimitrov stated his intent early, breaking Nadal in the second game of the match. Four aces in his first two service games gave Dimitrov an edge that Nadal could not blunt.
The Bulgarian stationed himself on the baseline where he dictated play for most of the opening set, a position that Nadal is not used to finding himself.
And after just 32 minutes, Nadal found himself in another unfamiliar position – one set down. Dimitrov did what nobody else has managed to do this tournament – take a set off the world No.1 – and he did it in style.
Eight aces and some imposing forehand winners the bedrock of Dimitrov's first-set success. Nadal, on the other hand, did not look to be at his best.
So it was a pleasant surprise for Nadal’s legion of fans when he broke Dimitrov in the second game of the second set with an off-forehand winner of his own. But it didn’t last long – he was broken straight back in the next game.
In the second set, the rallies grew longer as the Spaniard worked his way into the match.
Dimitrov, however, still had more tricks up his sleeve, showing off his full repertoire of skills including a chopped forehand volley that bounced backwards as soon as it hit the court, making it impossible for Nadal to get near the ball.
Nadal raised his level, but for every question he asked of Dimitrov, the Bulgarian had an answer. Until the tiebreak.
Some sloppy play from Dimitrov allowed Nadal to race to a 4-1 lead that he was unable to claw back. The top seed closed out the tiebreak 7-3 and roared in celebration, knowing just how important it was to tie the match and halt Dimitrov’s momentum.
Nadal continued to assert himself on the match in the third set. Some high-spinning forehands to Dimitrov's backhand forced him well beyond the baseline, allowing Nadal to step in and finish the point.
Similarly to the second set, Nadal broke early but Dimitrov quelled the advantage with a break of his own.
Another tiebreak, and again it was Nadal who grabbed the mini-break only for Dimitrov to work his way back. And just when it seemed Dimitrov was on the cusp of claiming the tiebreak, he threw it away.
Those two forehand errors, when Dimitrov had Nadal at his mercy, swung the match decisively. When asked about the two missed opportunities, Dimitrov was close to tears.
"What can I say? It hurts," said Dimitrov. "You know, I'm happy that I took the decision. Once you take [a] decision, never look back. Same thing in life: you make mistakes, you make mistakes. It's in the past."
Nadal, the beneficiary of Dimitrov's misses, knew that his fate lay in his opponent's hands.
"I was so lucky. I had especially one set point, he missed a forehand, an easy one … I felt that anything could happen."
Leading two sets to one, Nadal turned on the afterburners in the fourth set. A backhand passing shot that scorched down the line on break point in the second game was the last straw for Dimitrov.
To his credit the 22nd seed saw off three match points in the eighth game but he couldn't hold Nadal off forever, the Spaniard clinching the match when Dimitrov sprayed a forehand wide.
After the match, Nadal warmly embraced an emotional Dimitrov at the net and then paid tribute to him.
"He has everything to become a great champion," said Nadal, who will now prepare for his fourth Melbourne semifinal, which will be his 22nd Grand Slam semifinal overall.
Next up for Nadal will be either fourth seed Andy Murray or sixth seed Roger Federer.