ROME (AP) - The latest installment in the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic met expectations for one tight set.
Then Nadal pulled away for a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win to reach the Italian Open final on Saturday.
In their 51st meeting but first in more than a year, Nadal’s court coverage eventually proved too much to handle for Djokovic, who is still regaining his form from a persistent right elbow injury.
“That was a tough battle, a good level of tennis, a combination of good tactics and great shots from both of us,” said Nadal, who has had injury trouble of his own over the past year.
Nadal’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be defending champion Alexander Zverev, who recovered from an early break in the second set to beat Marin Cilic 7-6 (13), 6-4.
Zverev destroyed his racket near the end of the tiebreak in which he saved five set points. The German player is aiming for his third title in three weeks after lifting trophies in Munich and Madrid - but he hasn’t beaten Nadal in four tries.
“On this surface (Nadal) is almost unbeatable,” Zverev said. “I’ll have to play my best.”
If Nadal wins his record-extending eighth Rome title, he will replace Roger Federer at No. 1.
Federer is sitting out the clay season to prepare for Wimbledon.
On the women’s side, top-ranked Simona Halep rallied past three-time Rome champion Maria Sharapova 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 and will again face Elina Svitolina for the trophy.
Svitolina comfortably defeated Anna Kontaveit 6-4, 6-3 in the other semifinal.
In last year’s final, Svitolina came back to beat Halep after the Romanian rolled her ankle.
“I hope I don’t get injured again,” Halep said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
This is the last major warmup before the French Open starts next weekend.
The first set alone of Nadal-Djokovic made the Open era’s most prolific men’s rivalry worth watching. Djokovic recovered from an early break with excellent shot-making and Nadal converted his first set point with a return winner on the line after Djokovic followed his serve to the net.
During one particularly entertaining point midway through the first set, Nadal ran down a drop shot and forced Djokovic to retreat with a smartly angled response before Djokovic came forward again to finish the point off with a volley winner.
Fans stood up and applauded them on multiple occasions.
“It was a really good quality match,” Djokovic said. “I enjoyed it.”
After losing the first set tiebreak, Djokovic started shouting at his support box in an apparent discrepancy over tactics - then did it again on the next changeover.
Nadal got an early break in the second set and never looked back.
Djokovic noted that at 3-3 in the tiebreak he had to go play against the wind, “which is a huge difference” when playing Nadal.
“Those are the little details in tennis that only players and people who were on the court know,” Djokovic said.
Still, this was Djokovic’s best performance of the year.
“I played four matches here and I didn’t expect anything coming into this tournament,” Djokovic said. “I’m pleased with how I played the last three days - very pleased - and hopefully Roland Garros can be a continuation of this run.”
Sharapova appeared worn out toward the end of her nearly 2 1/2-hour match against Halep, having been on court more than seven hours longer than her opponent this week.
The fourth-ranked Svitolina produced only 18 winners to Kontaveit’s 24 but also committed fewer unforced errors - 13 to 20 - in a match that lasted 74 minutes.
Kontaveit, an Estonian, could still be pleased with a week that saw her eliminate four established players: 12th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe, two-time finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova, 1999 champion Venus Williams and second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.
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