Seven-time champion Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 on Saturday to reach the Rome Masters final.
Nadal, who is now 10-0 in semi-finals at the Foro Italico, broke loose after a tight first set lasting well over an hour to edge out Djokovic in their 51st career meeting in a rivalry stretching back to 2006.
The King of Clay eventually triumphed in the much-anticipated semifinal against Djokovic in a match that lasted 116 minutes.
But the story of Chapter 51 in the epic rivalry had to be the return to form of Djokovic, playing arguably the best tennis since his comeback. The first set especially was marvellous from the two champions, with lung-busting rallies and searing winners on the baking clay in Rome.
“I need to be able to play my best tomorrow,” Nadal said of a Sunday final against either defending champion Alexander Zverev or Croatian Marin Cilic where a win will take him back to the world number one spot.
“I’m very happy with my game. It all worked for me, the tactics, the shots.”
“To play against Novak you always have to play at the limit of your game with a high intensity and understand well the tactics you want to play.”
The 31-year-old world number two cut the deficit in his head-to-head series with Djokovic to 26-25, after their 51st meeting since first facing off in 2006.
But the Serb complained afterwards about poor scheduling which affected his preparation, playing a late-afternoon quarter-final on Friday before returning to court on Saturday mid-afternoon.
“I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining about losing the match because of the schedule. But having to end at night and coming back to play early in the day affects a lot,” he said.
“Nobody has ever, ever reached me in my entire career to ask me about what I think would be the best scheduling. I don’t think that is fair, we will address it in the next players’ council.”
Djokovic has rediscovered his form this week after months of elbow injury problems, including an operation earlier this year.
He can also feel his confidence increasing.
“I don’t think there was that much of a difference, which is great news for me. Winning the tie-break was for him a great wind in his back,” said Djokovic.
“Rafa was just better in the important moments, played the better shots. He deserved to win
“I haven’t had many breaks in the last period, so I’m pleased by how I’ve played in the last days. I hope Roland Garros can be the continuation.”
Nadal now stands 10-8 over Djokovic in semi-finals, with the pair having played each other at all four Grand Slam tournaments, the ATP Finals, Davis Cup, the Olympic Games along with eight of the nine Masters 1000 events.
Nadal took 73 minutes to win the opening set after leading 5-2.
But to take the early lead, the top seed had to avoid being reeled in by Djokovic.
Djokovic, a four-time Rome winner and former world number one, battled back to 5-5 with a break of the Spaniard before the set went to a tie-break, which Nadal took on the first of two set points with a backhand winner down the line.
Nadal took a 2-1 lead in the second set with another break of Djokovic and never lost control.
The top seed kept his nose ahead until the end, winning on his second match point as he fired another untouchable backhand.
(With AFP inputs)
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