Rafael Nadal's victory celebrations would have been more appropriate at a Grand Slam final rather than a semi-final of the Rome Masters, but the 23-year-old Spaniard had every reason to jump for joy after his 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory over Ernests Gulbis here yesterday. This was the world No 3's biggest test on clay so far this year and although he never dominated in his customary fashion he showed great resilience in a match that lasted more than two and three-quarter hours.
It was some performance by Gulbis, who had already knocked out Roger Federer and was playing in his first Masters Series semi-final. The 21-year-old Latvian struck the ball with awesome power, served superbly, hitting 14 aces, and showed he has the mental strength to handle the big occasion, saving 10 out of 12 break points.
Nadal, dropping his first set on clay this year, frequently looked uncomfortable under the weight of Gulbis' shots, but never lost his nerve. The Spaniard, who won his first tournament for 11 months in his first clay-court outing a fortnight ago, played a rock-solid final set and will today attempt to win the title here for the fifth time in six years. He faces David Ferrer, who beat Fernando Verdasco 7-5, 6-3.
Two years ago Gulbis was an outstanding prospect but admits he lost his way through his dislike of hard work. Having found renewed commitment, his results have improved rapidly. After slipping out of the world's top 100 last year, he will climb to a career-high position around No 34 in tomorrow's updated list.
Nadal broke in the opening game, but rarely looked at ease and at 5-4 had to save two break points before serving out for the first set. In the second it was Gulbis' turn to consolidate after making an early break to go 3-0 up.
Although Nadal saved a break point in the opening game of the decider, Gulbis' calmness under pressure was equally impressive. At 2-3 he saved four break points after going 0-40 down and two games later a service winner saved another. At 4-5, however, he finally cracked, going 0-40 down after hurrying his shots as Nadal piled on the pressure. On the Spaniard's first match point Gulbis put a backhand out.
"I didn't play well," Nadal said afterwards. "I didn't play as well as I have recently, but he was serving so well and playing so aggressively that it was really difficult. You can't play your best every day and I'm just pleased to have got through to the final."
Gulbis said that he believes he has the game to trouble the best. He was also surprised that Nadal had not put him under more pressure. The Latvian has a dry sense of humour and said he expected to continuing making progress "as long as I don't take holidays when I shouldn't".
Ferrer's run might be of consolation to Andy Murray, who was beaten by the world No 17 in the third round. The 28-year-old Spaniard has played more matches on clay this year (26) than any other man on the main tour, losing just three of them.
Relentlessly consistent and electrifyingly quick, Ferrer also has extraordinary reserves of energy. After 30-stroke rallies he looks as tired as a man who has just stretched to pick up the TV remote control.
Verdasco beat Ferrer in Barcelona last weekend and appeared to be heading for his third consecutive clay-court final when he raced into a 5-1 lead. However Ferrer, who had lost all four of his previous Masters Series semi-finals, soon found his rhythm. Verdasco's demanding schedule finally caught up with him - this was his 15th match in 19 days - and he faded quickly.
Does Verdasco think Ferrer has any chance today? "It depends upon Rafa," Verdasco said. "If he plays his best level on clay, then it is impossible to beat him."