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Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal has rather a lot on his plate at the moment. Blisters on his racket hand, broken shoelaces, time violations, learning new words.  

And the pressure of expectation.

If Nadal wins this title, his second Australian Open, not only will he equal Pete Sampras’s total haul of 14 Grand Slam singles titles - which not so long ago was deemed to be an unpassable benchmark - he will also become the first player to complete the career Grand Slam, twice over.

But what drives Nadal forwards each day is not records or requirements. It is his extraordinary motivation to be the best he can be. That if he just fights harder, he will come out on top.

“When I am not playing that well, I run and I fight for every point as I did today,” Nadal remarked after his hair-splitting three-set win over Kei Nishikori.

“I go on court trying to play my best every day, trying to play aggressive. Some days you play better, some days you play not that good. When you are playing normal and the opponent is a good one, you are able to keep winning, that’s have much more value.”

“I runned a lot today.”

He is likely to need his running shoes again against Grigor Dimitrov, the prodigiously talented 22-year-old who is through to his first Grand Slam tournament quarterfinal, three years after winning his first Grand Slam singles match in these very grounds.

Also the first Bulgarian man to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam singles event, Dimitrov is a striking tennis player. There is a grace and fluidity to his movement and shot-making that you cannot teach, hence the nickname that shall not be named.

In the past he has idled, indulged in trickery, mastery, things that only he can do, things that are fun to do. They don’t win you matches. He is opposite from Nadal in that respect.

But he owes his spot in the last eight here not to his flashy forehand or beautiful backhand. Under the guise of new coach Roger Rasheed, Dimitrov has adopted some of that inherently Rafa-like mentality. That to succeed, you must work beyond your limits, and run and run and run, all day long.

“I would say I've been working really hard in the past year, especially in the off season,” Dimitrov said. “I'm not even close to satisfaction.”

“Whether I like it or not, the patience is one of the main ingredients to become good,”

His win over Milos Raonic, another anointed star, was notable in that respect. That Dimitrov took his time, didn’t waste points, and kept his head.

“That’s what I’m playing for, to put myself in position to play those guys. I had tough battles with him in the past. Played a couple times on clay. There were always little things missing.”

With a better grip on when to use his shot-making armoury, Dimitrov could take the match to Nadal. If he fires the first strike, and doesn’t get drawn into the Spaniard’s favoured attritional baseline grind, that is. And doesn’t allow Nadal to run and fight.

But there is the sense that this meeting, his fourth against Nadal, might still come too soon for Dimitrov.

Even if the world No.1 is not firing on every battery, as was the case against Nishikori, Nadal’s sub-par, blisters included, will be enough for the Bulgarian’s best. It was on hard courts in Cincinnati. It was on clay in Monte Carlo. And it was on hard courts in Rotterdam. 

This time, Dimitrov doesn’t think so.

“I like my chances,” he said.

He is a more disciplined, harder-working young man. But he still has his swag. It could win him the match.

Saturday, 20 December 2014
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