Federer stands between Nadal and clay treble

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will renew the greatest rivalry in modern tennis for the first time in a year when they meet this afternoon in the final of the Madrid Masters. The game's two best players have not faced each other since the Swiss beat the Spaniard on the same court exactly 12 months ago.

In yesterday's semi-finals Nadal maintained his remarkable winning run by beating Nicolas Almagro 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, while Federer recorded his best result of what has been a patchy clay-court season when he beat David Ferrer 7-5, 3-6, 6-3. The world No 1 will be making his first appearance in a final since the Australian Open.

With the French Open only a week away, neither man will want to concede a psychological advantage. Nadal, who had a difficult 10 months after his early exit from Roland Garros last summer, has enjoyed the perfect clay-court campaign so far, winning all 14 of his matches, but Federer will be defending the title in Paris, where he has lost to his rival on four occasions. Nadal, indeed, has won 13 of their 20 encounters.

The Spaniard will be chasing a hat-trick of Masters titles, having won in Monte Carlo and Rome, and will be aware that Federer denied him that treble with his victory in the Madrid final last year. Federer, meanwhile, can rejoin Nadal and Andre Agassi at the top of the list of all-time Masters Series champions. Nadal and Agassi have won 17 titles each and Federer 16.

Yesterday's victory secured Nadal's return to the No 2 position in the world rankings, but he looked out of touch in the early stages. Having not dropped his serve all week, the Majorcan was broken three times in the first set as Almagro joined Ernests Gulbis as the only players to take a set off Nadal in his last three tournaments. Nadal was still struggling to hold serve at the start of the second set, but the match quickly turned around. As Nadal found his form, his fellow Spaniard faded rapidly. From 1-1 in the second set the world No 35 lost 11 of the last 14 games.

"I made a lot of mistakes in the first set and Almagro was playing really well," Nadal said. "Because he was attacking me a lot I tried to play safer in the first set. That was a mistake."

Although Federer has never lost in 10 matches against Ferrer, the world No 12 has been outstanding recently, as Andy Murray discovered when losing in straight sets to him on Friday. The man from Valencia reached his first Masters Series final a fortnight ago when he lost to Nadal in Rome.

Federer, however, made a superb start, dropping only two points in his first six service games and regularly threatening to break his opponent. Ferrer held on until the 11th game, after which Federer served out for the first set. The dogged Ferrer took command of the second set with an early break, but the third resumed the pattern of the first. Federer's pressure secured a decisive break to earn a 5-3 lead and the Swiss went on to secure victory with an ace on his first match point.

Venus Williams, who will also reclaim the No 2 position in the world rankings this week, reached her first Madrid final with a crushing 6-3, 6-0 victory over Shahar Peer. She now faces France's Aravane Rezai, whose opponent, Lucie Safarova, retired with a thigh injury after losing the first set 6-1.

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