It's the first time all tournament Rafa has lost a set, but he should consider himself a bit lucky, as it could've been much worse than that.
Not only did Nadal have to deal with a game challenger, a blister on his left hand was also causing him trouble all match, per Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
While that blister proved troublesome for Rafa, he had the mental strength to push past it. He's had some trouble in Melbourne in the past, but the fact that he found a way to earn the victory on Wednesday bodes well for his 2014 campaign.
The first set laid the marker down for what would be a thrilling match. It also acted as an indicator of what kind of effort would be required of the No. 1 seed.
Right from the outset, Dimitrov went on the offensive. He was willing to take the match right to Nadal, which is often suicidal for Rafa's opponents.
But Dimitrov had two things working in his favor. One was his level of fitness. He didn't have any problems running with Nadal, which helped to eliminate one of Rafa's biggest assets. The second was that he punished Nadal with huge serves and ground strokes.
Dimitrov pounded the Spaniard into submission, finishing the first set with eight aces and 14 winners, per the Australian Open's official website. That compared to two and eight, respectively, for Nadal.
Not only did Dimitrov's massive power game move Nadal around the baseline, but it also forced him to drop deeper and deeper in the court. That opened up the drop shot and limited Nadal's options for what he could do with his ground strokes.
Dimitrov brushed aside Rafa in 32 minutes in the first set:
The second set was a bit of recalibration, as Nadal was able to regain his footing little by little, and Dimitrov leveled off.
The two exchanged breaks in the first four games before holding serve for the rest of the set.
In the second, Nadal did much better with his serve. He was able to turn the tables a bit and force Dimitrov off the baseline. That allowed Rafa to work the angles. Dimitrov's unforced errors jumped from seven in the first set to 19 in the second.
Nadal took control of the tiebreak, grabbing a 4-1 lead before winning 7-3.
The third set would prove the turning point of the match. There was no way Dimitrov would recover from a 2-1 set deficit, so it was imperative that he take the lead heading into the fourth.
It simply wasn't to be. This set demonstrated the difference between the two players. When Nadal absolutely needed to win a point, he did. The same couldn't be said for Dimitrov, who appeared to tense up just enough to affect his game.
He could do incredible stuff like this. Even if he didn't win the point, he was pulling off ridiculous shots:
But in the pivotal points, he lacked that aggression and looked too risk-averse.
Eleanor Crooks of the Press Association summed it up well:
Oh dear Grigor. Three set points and then a bad forehand miss to hand it to Nadal. The stuff nightmares are made of— Eleanor Crooks (@EleanorcrooksPA) January 22, 2014
The prime example is when the 22nd seed was up 6-5 in the tiebreak. He had a beautiful forehand chance to put Rafa away, but he hit the shot wide. Nadal would keep hanging around, eventually winning 9-7.
By this point, it was all over but the shouting. Dimitrov tried to recover in the fourth set, but the damage had already been done. He went down 3-0, which turned into 4-1, which turned into 5-2 and you get the picture.
Although Dimitrov won't be content with a loss—he shed a tear after the match as shown by the tournament's official Twitter feed—Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim thought he had at least established himself as a possible top-10 player:
Nadal-even with a hole in his hand-will win this match. But Dimitrov has arrived. For sure, an unofficial top ten player right now.— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) January 22, 2014
Nadal, meanwhile, was angry at his serve in his post-match interview, admitting he made life difficult for himself throughout the contest:
"I served slower, I served bad & I was able to win a match against a very difficult opponent" @RafaelNadal on his serve during the match— Australian Open (@AustralianOpen) January 22, 2014
There's no rest for the weary, as Nadal gets the winner of No. 4 Andy Murray vs. No. 6 Roger Federer in the semifinal. With the physical nature of this quarterfinal match, it will be difficult for Rafa to fully recover.
Plus, he's got that wicked blister to worry about.
Playing Dimitrov, Nadal could just barely scrape by without being his best, but he won't be so lucky against either Murray or Federer.