Spain’s Rafael Nadal battled past Czech Tomas Berdych 6-4, 7-5 Friday to book his spot in the Rome Masters semifinals, where countryman David Ferrer awaits.
Nadal and Berdych, the runner-up in last week’s Madrid event, treated the crowd at the Foro Italico to a high level of baseline tennis and a contrast of styles between the Spaniard’s heavy topspin and the Czech’s flatter drives.
The world No. 3 got off to a fast start by breaking Berdych’s serve in the opening game and then avoided complications by staving off a break point three games later en route to a 3-1 lead.
Highly efficient on his service games early on, Nadal put 84 percent of his first serves in play and won 90 percent of those points in taking the first set in 46 minutes.
The big-hitting Berdych seemed intent on taking the match the distance when he grabbed a break of serve in the sixth game of the second set and then consolidated it one game later to take a 4-3 lead.
But Nadal then began striking his ground strokes with more authority and making forays into the net to heap the pressure on Berdych, whose unforced errors allowed the Spaniard to tie up the score at 4-4.
The world No. 7 managed to move within one game of the set after battling through a back-and-forth service game that went to several deuces and in which he had to fight off a few break points.
The Czech, however, was unable to repeat the story two games later, dropping serve to fall behind 5-6 and then bowing out in the next game when he sent a forehand wide of the sideline.
“I played one of my best matches on clay against a difficult opponent,” Nadal said in the post-match press conference. “It was a big match and one of the higher quality matches this year because the level of the opponent is high and he is playing with big confidence.”
“I played under pressure all the time in the match; my chances on the return were few so I had to be focused. I hit a few fantastic shots and this kind of shot comes with confidence,” the world No. 3 said.
Nadal is trying to rebound after a disappointing early exit in last week’s Madrid event, where he complained bitterly about the controversial and slippery blue-clay courts. He also was leapfrogged in the rankings by Swiss arch-rival Roger Federer after his third-round loss there to countryman Fernando Verdasco.
Next up for five-time champion Nadal in Saturday’s semifinals will be Ferrer, who continued his strong run of form this clay-court season by defeating Frenchman Richard Gasquet on Friday 7-6 (7-4), 6-3.
The two Spaniards squared off in a tightly contested final a few weeks ago in another clay-court event in Barcelona, where Nadal prevailed 7-6 (7-1), 7-5.
Ferrer, the world No. 6, trails in his head-to-head against Nadal 14-4 and told reporters after advancing to the semifinals that the 10-time Grand Slam champion will have to “have a bad day” if he is to pull off the upset.
The other semifinal will be a blockbuster contest pitting world No. 1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the defending champion, against Federer, who is seeking his first title at this tournament.
Both players put on impressive displays in their quarterfinal matches Friday, with Djokovic rolling past French world No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5, 6-1 before Federer dispatched Italy’s Andreas Seppi 6-1, 6-2 in the night match.
The Rome Masters is one of the most important clay-court events on the ATP calendar and the last big tune-up for the French Open, which gets underway later this month.
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