-- MELBOURNE, Australia -- Seven months ago, Rafael Nadal stepped into a courtesy car headed for his Paris hotel and broke down in tears.
He had just withdrawn from the French Open, his favorite tournament, because of a wrist injury that many felt could mean he would never get back to his best.
The road back has been long and constantly filled with doubt, but at the Australian Open on Friday, Nadal showed, yet again, the will power that has defined his illustrious career.
Fight, fight, fight and when you feel like you're done, fight some more. Nadal is back.
His 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4 victory over an inspired Grigor Dimitrov in almost five hours at Melbourne Park means Nadal will play his old friend and foe Roger Federer in the Australian Open final Sunday ( 3 a.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App). It will be their 35th meeting, but first in a Grand Slam final since Roland Garros six years ago.
Nadal never gave up hope, but he didn't expect the success to come so soon.
"I am a positive person [so] I never say never because I worked very hard to be where I am," Nadal said. "I really have been working very hard.
"Before coming here, I said in the press conference before the tournament, I am practicing very well. I always had the confidence that if I am able to win some matches, then anything can happen.
"But last year was tough. When you feel that you are playing very well and you have to [leave] from Roland Garros without going on court [before his third-round match], I remember myself crying on the car coming back to hotel. That was a tough moment."
Watching Carlos Moya, who joined his coaching team at the end of last year, suffer in the stands as Nadal was pushed to the limit was a reminder of how much the 14-time Grand Slam winner thrives in the pressure moments. ?
"It was unbelievable," a drained Moya told a handful of reporters after the match. "He's such a fighter, a warrior. I have no words to describe for what I saw today."
Four years ago, at the 2013 French Open, Nadal explained how he had learned to enjoy suffering in big matches, finding the joy of winning so much better as a result. The indomitable spirit, not matter what travails Nadal has endured, has not waned.?
On Friday, we saw the grimaces on his face, the clenched fists, screams of vamos. The emotion was raw, especially when he lost the fourth-set tiebreaker. Moya could barely watch.
"You feel for him," Moya said. "He was so close to winning in the fourth set. He was still trying to do his best, and Grigor was playing unbelievable. It was a tough battle for both, and it could have gone either way."
But Nadal quite simply refused to lose, and if ever one match could set the tone for a year, then it is this one.
For all the talk of Federer's own stunning comeback -- reaching the final after six months out with a knee injury -- and of the all-Williams women's final between Serena and Venus -- Nadal's return could be even more significant.
His forehand, especially in the first set and then again in the fifth, looked back to its most commanding. His movement was good, and his fighting spirit is as incredible as ever.
If he wins Sunday, he will be just two Grand Slams behind Federer in the all-time list, a huge motivation to close the gap even further at the French Open in May.
Their final will be a special occasion for both, but for now Nadal will be focused only on recovering in time to give his all, as he always does.
"It was a very demanding match, physically and mentally, but in the past Rafa has been able to recover well from these matches," Moya said. "So he's going to be OK, I think."