Nadal eyes first Aussie title in 13 years
Rafael Nadal reckons he's rusty, playing inconsistently and is delivering a game with far too many mistakes - but it hasn't stopped the old master rumbling on with a huge smile to the verge of his first title in Australia for 13 years.
After just a couple of matches at the Melbourne Summer Set event where it's looked as if he's found it hard work grinding through the gears, the Spanish master has still found himself in yet another ATP Tour final and is enjoying every minute.
He meets American qualifier Maxime Cressy in Sunday's final and will be a hot favourite to extend one of the sport's great streaks as he seeks to win at least one ATP title for the 19th successive season.
"I just love what I'm doing," he explained to the Rod Laver Arena crowd on Saturday night, after he'd made hard work of a 6-4 7-5 win over Emil Ruusuvuori, a tough young Finn who's been one of Nadal's pupils at his Mallorca academy.
"I always feel passionate about the sport in general and I feel a very lucky person that I can live from one of my hobbies, tennis.
"I know it's not forever and it's not a job I'm going to do for 50 years - but I want to enjoy it as much as I can while I still have the chance."
And he still does have a chance.
For while all the talk has been about whether Novak Djokovic will be freed from his current plight to get the chance to shoot for a record 21st grand slam, Nadal can never be overlooked in his own quest for the same landmark.
Of course, there can be no doubt that his preparations, disrupted by an injury-hit 2021 campaign which have sidelined him from serious action since August and which culminated in a bout of COVID-19, have left him far from his best.
But the 35-year-old reckons the chance of picking up an 89th ATP title on Sunday and his first on an Australian court since he won his only Open crown in Melbourne against Roger Federer in 2009 reminds him there's one thing he never loses.
"Of course, I need to do a lot of things better on court, but the only thing that I am not missing is that positive attitude," he explained.
"Don't get frustrated when things are not going the way I wanted.
"I need to be more consistent, that's obvious. But my serve was working well tonight, so that helps a lot, and then I played a good game to close the match.
"Victory helps a lot on this moment, of course, and that's what I did."
Now he faces the Paris-born Cressy, a 24-year-old who's reached number 112 in the world and is having an outstanding week which culminated on Saturday with his 7-5 7-6 (11-9) win over Bulgarian third seed Grigor Dimitrov.
He smashed 17 aces to reach his first ATP Tour final and Nadal knows what's coming.
"He's serving huge, playing very, very aggressive, and in fast conditions he's very, very dangerous, so well done for him. I hope I will be able to play at a high level and create my chances."