Nadal, Djokovic to meet in Rome final
No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Novak Djokovic will resume their rivalry in the Italian Open final Sunday.
Nadal, who has won this tournament five of the last six years, overcame a tough first set against Richard Gasquet on Saturday before rolling to a 7-5, 6-1 semifinal victory. Djokovic was pushed to the limit in extending his unbeaten streak to 38 matches, defeating fourth-ranked Andy Murray 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (2).
In the women's final, Maria Sharapova will meet Sam Stosur, last year's French Open runner-up. Sharapova outslugged top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3, and Stosur downed fourth-seeded Li Na of China 7-6 (6), 6-0.
Djokovic beat Nadal in title matches in Indian Wells and Miami this year, then also won in Madrid last weekend, his first victory over the Spaniard on clay.
This tournament is another key clay warmup for the French Open, which starts next weekend.
''Every aspect of the game will be important,'' Nadal said. ''I know Djokovic is playing at an exceptional level right now, but I just have to fight to the end like I always do. If I don't beat him tomorrow, then the next match.''
Nadal has a 31-1 record at the Foro Italico. Djokovic has won all 36 of his matches this year, trailing only John McEnroe's 42-0 start in 1984.
''I'll probably play with less pressure than before because I (am no longer) the favorite,'' Nadal said.
Murray was unable to hold serve in the opening set, which Djokovic dominated with the help of a spinning drop shot.
In the second set, Murray began to win the longer points, taking a key break to go up 5-3 when Djokovic netted a backhand to conclude a tense rally.
Murray served for the third set at 5-4 but double-faulted to let Djokovic back into the match even though the Serb was in apparent physical trouble - stretching his legs between points. Murray then fell apart in the tiebreaker.
Nadal faced break points in three different games during the opening set but won all of them to improve his career record against Gasquet to 9-0.
''It was a complicated situation on my serve in the (first set) but I managed to pull through,'' Nadal said. ''I'm happy to make the final after a difficult week.''
Nadal said he no longer has a fever or any pain from a virus that slowed him earlier this week.
''Every day I'm playing better after that disastrous first day,'' Nadal said, referring to his three-set win over Italian qualifier Paolo Lorenzi in his opener. ''I'm happy with my clay-court season. How I'm playing in the last couple of matches is the way forward, more aggressively.''
Despite the loss, the 16th-seeded Gasquet should take some confidence into the French Open. The Frenchman eliminated Roger Federer in the third round and beat seventh-seeded Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.
''It was a fantastic tournament for him,'' Nadal said. ''I'm happy to see him back at his best. He's a good friend.''
The seventh-seeded Sharapova will be playing her second final of the year, having fallen to Victoria Azarenka in Miami in March. In addition to her father, Yuri, Sharapova began working with a new coach - former Swedish pro Thomas Hogstedt - at the start of the year.
''Every year I feel better and better (on clay),'' Sharapova said, adding that she also recovers quicker now between tough matches on the surface.
Early in the second set, Sharapova fell stomach-first to the clay chasing down a shot. That point gave Wozniacki a 2-0 lead, but Sharapova won the final five games. She raised her arms and gave a big smile after landing a forehand return winner on her first match point.
Stosur hadn't reached a final since losing to Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros last year.
''I had to look at the positive side because I had a very good tournament as well,'' Stosur said. ''But, at that time, it is not always easy to see those things.''