by Robert Smith
Melbourne - Rafael Nadal is two matches away from getting the jump on golden era rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to become all-time Grand Slam leader as the Australian Open gets down to the last four on Friday.
The 35-year-old Spanish gladiator has Italian power server Matteo Berrettini to overcome to get through to Sunday's final against second seed Daniil Medvedev or number four Stefanos Tsitsipas in his quest for a 21st major title.
Nadal, seeded sixth and the 2009 winner, had modest expectations resuming after a three-and-a-half-month lay-off with a chronic foot injury at the end of last season.
But a combination of nine-time winner Djokovic's dramatic deportation on the eve of the tournament over vaccination issues and world number three Alexander Zverev's shock fourth round exit has cleared Nadal's path to the top-half semi-final.
Nadal has been modifying his game to compensate for a degenerative bone disease in his left foot that threatens to end his remarkable career and faces another physical test against last year's Wimbledon finalist Berrettini.
"Today there are still doubts because the foot, it is an injury we cannot fix... so we need to find a way that the pain is under control to keep playing," Nadal said.
"The last six months have been a lot of doubts if I would be able to keep going.
"But now I feel good. We are in a position that we won a (lead-up) tournament, we are in semi-finals of the Australian Open, so that's amazing for me."
Seventh seed Berrettini, 25, the first Italian man to play in the Australian Open semi-finals, is in awe of facing up to Nadal, but believes he can cause an upset.
"Playing with him on Rod Laver Arena in the semi-finals is something that I dreamed about when I was a kid," he said.
"Now I really want to win this match. I know I can do it. It's gonna be a really tough one. I'm in the semis in a Slam for the third time so it means that this is my level and I want to get further."
The two-metre tall (6ft 7in) Berrettini, who possesses a topspin forehand nearly as heavy as Nadal's, lost their only meeting in a semi-final at the 2019 US Open in straight sets.
Medvedev, the tournament favourite, needs to recuperate before facing Tsitsipas after two long, torrid examinations just to get to the semi-finals.
He is hoping there is enough petrol left in the tank to go on and win his second major title after last year's success over Djokovic at the US Open.
Medvedev was kept on court for 3hr 30min before dousing American serve-volleyer Maxime Cressy over four sets.
Then was taken to the brink by Canada's ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in a five-set quarter-final that ebbed for 4hr 42min before finishing past midnight Wednesday.
"I never had this experience. I played some long matches but never like four hours and never won it to be able to play in two days," he said.
"I'm going to try to recover as well as possible, to be ready to play against Stefanos, because he's a great player. I need to be at my best to beat him."
Medvedev leads Tsitsipas 6-2 in their eight meetings (2-1 in Slams) and will have to contend with the Greek favourite in Melbourne who said he was "in the zone" after producing his best match of the tournament to demolish Italian 11th seed Jannik Sinner in the quarters.
"It was the most consistent and the best match I've had in the tournament," Tsitsipas said.
"I feel like I'm in the zone. I have no plans of getting out of it. It's part of my game."