Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have met only twice since their momentous Wimbledon final of 2008 but the world's best two players are on course to face each other for the 21st time in tomorrow's final of the Qatar Open in Doha.
The Swiss and the Spaniard yesterday reached the semi-finals in their first competitive tournament of the year, though Federer had some uncomfortable moments before beating Ernests Gulbis 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. Nadal was leading Steve Darcis 6-1, 2-0 when his Belgian opponent retired hurt.
Nadal has beaten Federer in 13 of their 20 matches, though he lost in their most recent encounter in the final of the Madrid Masters last May. He had won their previous meeting at last year's Australian Open, when he beat the Swiss in a Grand Slam final for the third time in the space of eight months. Nadal was world No 1 at the time, but Federer reclaimed his place at the top of the rankings by going on to win the French Open and Wimbledon.
Gulbis was regarded as one of the game's best young talents two years ago but had a poor 2009, winning two main-draw matches in a row on only two occasions. However, wins this week over Albert Montanes and Andreas Seppi had suggested the 21-year-old might be rediscovering his form.
Federer took the first set in just 33 minutes but started to make frequent unforced errors in the second. Gulbis had break points to lead 4-2 and 5-3 and finally broke when Federer served to stay in the set at 4-5. From 40-15 up, the Swiss made four mistakes in succession to put the world No 90 back in the match.
Even when Federer broke to lead 3-2 in the decider Gulbis was not finished. The big-hitting Latvian broke back immediately, only to drop his serve again at 4-4 after hitting a wild forehand at 30-40. Federer did not waste his second chance, sealing victory with an ace on his second match point.
Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters have played each other even more frequently than Federer and Nadal and kept alive their chances of meeting for the 23rd time in tomorrow's Brisbane International final.
Henin beat Melinda Czink 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 and Clijsters overcame Lucie Safarova 6-1, 0-6, 6-4, though their scratchy quarter-final performances suggested that their passage to an all-Belgian final would by no means be a foregone conclusion. Henin, in particular, was facing a major task in her semi-final today against Ana Ivanovic, while Clijsters was due to play Germany's Andrea Petkovic.
The Belgians last met in the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2006, Henin winning in straight sets to take a 12-10 lead in their head-to-head record.
Spain, in the shape of Tommy Robredo and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, reached the final of the Hopman Cup in Perth thanks to a whitewash victory over the Australians Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur. Their opponents tomorrow will be decided by today's final round-robin matches, in which Britain's Andy Murray and Laura Robson were taking on Russia's Igor Andreev and Elena Dementieva.