- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

MADRID (AP) - Continuing to impress on clay ahead of the French Open, Andy Murray defeated Rafael Nadal 7-5, 6-4 to reach his second straight Madrid Open final on Saturday.

Murray, who saved 11 break points to win a rematch of last year’s final, will play the decider against top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who defeated No. 6 Kei Nishikori 6-3-7-6 (4) in the other semifinal.

Djokovic broke Nishikori’s serve once in each set and hit 22 winners to secure his tour-leading 32nd win of the year on his fifth match point. The Serb will try to win his fifth title of the season, with a chance to become the first player to clinch 29 Masters titles, one more than Nadal. Nishikori was trying to reach his third straight final, and win his second title of the season.

“It wasn’t easy to play in these very windy conditions, but overall I’m very pleased,” Djokovic said ahead of his fifth meeting against Murray on clay.

“Andy has tremendously improved in the last couple of years on the clay courts,” Djokovic said. “(He has) already proved that he’s definitely one of the best players in the world in this surface as well. The rivalry continues. We have so many great finals, great matches, and I look forward to another one.”

Djokovic has won 11 of the last 12 matches against Murray since 2014. He’s won all of their four encounters on clay.

Murray needs to successfully defend his title on Sunday to avoid being surpassed by Roger Federer for the No. 2 ranking, a position he has held since November.

In the women’s final, Simona Halep of Romania defeated Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-2, 6-4 to win her 12th career title and guarantee her return into the top-five rankings.

“I’m really happy I could win this trophy, it’s very special for me,” said Halep, who lost the 2014 final in Madrid. “It’s amazing for me to be able to speak to you for a second time on this court. It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s the best day in my life.”

Cibulkova, who had 23 unforced errors, was trying to win her second title this season after reaching three finals.

Nadal had his chances but failed on the decisive points in front of his home crowd, falling short in his attempt to win a third consecutive title, in a match that lasted 2 hours, 11 minutes.

“In general, he was a little bit better than me,” Nadal said.

Murray became the first player to ever beat Nadal at the same clay tournament in consecutive years.

“Not loads of players have won against Rafa on clay throughout his career,” Murray said. “Very few in the last year for sure when he wasn’t playing his best. To beat him in Spain on a clay court is obviously a big, big challenge for any player. Very pleased to have beaten him this year.”

It was Murray’s seventh win in his last eight matches on clay, the surface he struggled on the most early in his career. He had lost four of the last five matches against Nadal.

“Big, big step for me from where I was four or five weeks ago,” Murray said. “I’m going back in the right direction again.”

It was Nadal’s first loss after 13 straight wins. The former No. 1 was trying to win his third consecutive title after triumphs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Nadal also was looking to win a record 50th clay-court title in the Open era.

“Murray was not unbeatable today. It was an open match, an even match,” Nadal said. “I didn’t play my best level, but I didn’t play badly. I played a medium level, which was not enough to beat Murray.”

Murray defeated the Spaniard here in straight sets in 2015 for his first Masters title on clay, but the fifth-ranked Nadal beat Murray in three sets last month in the Monte Carlo semifinals.

“It was a better win for me this year than last year,” Murray said. “I didn’t think he played his best match in the final last year. Not saying he played his best tennis today, but he played better than last year.”

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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