Spain’s Rafael Nadal produced his best tennis of this year’s Rome Masters on Saturday, starting the match on fire and finishing strong to claim a 6-2, 6-4 semifinal victory over Czech Tomas Berdych.
Next up for the six-time Rome champion in Sunday’s final will be archrival Roger Federer, who defeated surprise semifinalist Benoit Paire of France 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 in the night match.
Nadal was in absolute peak form in the first set, seizing control of nearly every point with deep, accurate and heavily spun ground strokes.
And on the rare occasion when Berdych dictated play, the world No. 5 typically won the point anyway with highlight-reel defensive gems.
The second set was more evenly matched, but Berdych’s fate was virtually sealed when he lost his serve in the ninth game, and he was unable to mount a miracle comeback like the one he pulled off in Friday’s quarterfinals against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
“The first set was fantastic,” Nadal said in the post-match press conference.
“I played at a high level and everything went well with no mistakes. I was dominating the points and following to the net. I think I played one of my best matches since I am came back,” he added, referring to his long injury layoff from July 2012 until early this year.
Nadal has made a spectacular return to the ATP Tour since recovering from a knee injury, reaching eight straight finals dating back to a small clay-court tournament in Viña del Mar, Chile, in February.
The 31-year-old Federer, meanwhile, booked his spot in Sunday’s final with a solid performance against the 24-year-old Paire, who is having a breakthrough year on the ATP Tour.
Nadal and the Swiss world No. 3 have played 29 times, with Nadal holding a 19-10 advantage. Sunday’s final will be their 15th meeting on clay, with Nadal holding a 12-2 advantage on his favorite surface.
The Spaniard won their lone meeting in Rome seven years ago, staving off two championship points to win in a fifth set tiebreaker.
Nadal can move up to No. 4 in the rankings - and avoid a possible quarterfinal matchup at the French Open against either Djokovic, Federer or Scotsman Andy Murray - if he wins Sunday’s final, which will be the best of three sets.
In Sunday’s women’s final, world No. 1 Serena Williams will square off against world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka.
The Rome event is one of the biggest clay-court events on the ATP and WTA calendars and a key tune-up for the French Open, which gets underway on May 26.
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