Nadal wins a Spanish humdinger

There have been much longer matches, and matches with more finesse and variety. But yesterday's Rome Masters semi-final between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer takes some beating for sheer, blistering competitiveness. Two boring Spanish clay-courters grinding it out on clay? Not a bit of it.

There have been much longer matches, and matches with more finesse and variety. But yesterday's Rome Masters semi-final between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer takes some beating for sheer, blistering competitiveness. Two boring Spanish clay-courters grinding it out on clay? Not a bit of it.

Ferrer, the last Spanish player to defeat Nadal - in the quarter-final on the clay of Stuttgart last July - became the 14th Spaniard in a row to lose to him, but it was close enough for the hard-to-please spectators at the Foro Italico to rise to both players at the finish. They had seen 13 breaks of serve, each one earned by tenacity and fierce action.

The 18-year-old Nadal leapt for joy after the victory, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, after two hours and 29 minutes. It was his 16th win in a row and took him into his third Masters Series final of the year.

Any question that the sturdy youngster from Majorca would wilt after so many matches was stilled as he fought his way back into the contest after losing a 4-2 lead in the opening set.

It will be instructive to see how much energy he has in reserve for today's best-of-five sets final against Argentina's Guillermo Coria - particularly as Nadal is one of the favourites over the marathon course at the French Open, starting a fortnight tomorrow. Coria defeated the 35-year-old Andre Agassi yesterday, 7-5, 7-6, winning all seven tie-break points.

Agassi later accused Coria of unsportsmanlike conduct over a line call in the opening set. "He held out a finger before the ball bounced, a circled the mark with his racket as if it was clearly out and then walked back into the court as if it wasn't even close," Agassi said. "That's unacceptable behaviour."

The 23-year-old Ferrer, ranked 18 places below Nadal, lost the opening two games but broke back to 4-4 and cracked Nadal's serve a second time to take the set in the 10th game.

Nadal also lost an early break in the second set, and the players exchanged two more breaks before Nadal made the decisive move in the ninth game. Ferrer dramatically saved two match points at 4-5 down, only to be broken in the next game.

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